British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw last week hurried to dispel any sense of imminent crisis in the nuclear stand-off with Iran. “I don’t think we should rush our fences here,” Straw told an audience in London, before going on to suggest that Iran’s concern to avoid seeing the issue of its nuclear program brought before the UN Security Council indicated the “strength of the authority of that body.” Iranian defiance of international will on the question of its uranium enrichment program, and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s open advocacy of the destruction of Israel and embrace of Holocaust denial, have caused widespread alarm and expressions of concern. Straw, however, confirms that basic European assumptions on Iran remain unchanged. Israel’s experience with the Islamic Republic of Iran offers some clues as to the likely effectiveness of the European approach.
Iran’s support for Palestinian organizations engaged in violence against Israel is of long standing. Palestinian Islamic Jihad has since its inception claimed inspiration from the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979. Ramadan Shallah, the movement’s leader, described his organization in May 2002 as “one of the many fruits on our leader Khomeini’s tree.” Israeli assessments consider the Iranians to be Islamic Jihad’s near sole source of funding. The mullahs, as may be seen from last week’s bombing in Tel Aviv, get a fair return for their outlay. In Islamic Jihad, Iran purchases for itself a fully deniable instrument of policy. The organization may be activated at will in order to keep the conflict on the boil, help scupper the calm that must precede a return to negotiation, and so on.
Iran’s relations with Hamas are more complex. There ought to be a natural rivalry and indeed hostility between the Shiite mullahs and the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The evidence suggests that in the first years of Hamas’ existence, mutual anathema did indeed pertain. In the 1990s, however, a close relationship developed. The basis of this, of course, was a shared strategic commitment to the destruction of Israel. In the shorter term, a common desire to stymie all attempts at a diplomatic resolution of the conflict brought the Shiite Islamists of Tehran and the Sunni radicals of Gaza together. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin led a Hamas delegation to Iran in April, 1998. The delegation met with officials from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s office, then minister of intelligence and security Ghorban Ali Dorrie Najafabadi and leaders of the Qods force – the special operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps.
According to Arabic media sources, the result was the creation of a “strategic alliance,” which saw the commencement of large financial transfers from Iran to Hamas. The funds were to come from the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and other subsidiary bodies. Precise figures regarding the level of support are hard to come by. One respected United States researcher estimated that Iranian funding of Hamas probably reaches between $20 million and $50 million annually.
What relevance should all this have on the Western understanding of Iran? For the world according to Jack Straw to work, Iran must be understood to be a country governed by rational, practical men who, faced with firm criticism from the UN Security Council, will adjust their plans accordingly. The evidence outlined above, however, suggests that Islamist Iran is not like that. The support given to Hamas and Islamic Jihad continued untroubled during the presidency of the “moderate” Mohammed Khatami, before the arrival of Ahmedinejad, and the rise of the Revolutionary Guards. With no conceivable geo-strategic gain for itself, the non-Arab Iran, situated geographically far from Israel’s borders and surrounded by unfriendly countries, chose to pour money into organizations committed to the destruction of Israel. They did so because of an idea.
The Israeli experience thus suggests three things. The mullahs take their ideas seriously. They back them up with money and action. And the revolutionary ideas in question transcend their Shia origins, enabling Iran to sponsor a variety of radical Islamist groups, and to present itself as the key, sovereign force in radical Islam.
Until now, the conflict between the West and radical Islam has taken the form of a clash between states and non-state Islamist organizations. Iran is radical Islam with sovereignty, and it seeks to become radical Islam with a nuclear capability. In its dealings with Israel, on the basis of ideology alone, it sponsors organizations whose main purpose is the murder of civilians. The West will need to decide if it feels happy about such a body possessing nuclear weapons. If it decides that it does not, it will then need to examine whether “action” in the form of a rebuke from the Security Council is likely to prove a sufficiently terrifying proposition to force the men of ideas and blood in Tehran to think again.