Pilgrimage to Tehran

Barry Rubin, GLORIA

The big picture can be found in the little details. Here’s a great example. Iran recently held a summit meeting bringing together Palestinian leaders. Hamas was there, of course, and Islamic Jihad, too. No surprise that. But there was someone else participating in the gathering: Farouq Qaddumi.

Qaddumi is a veteran Fatah and PLO bureaucrat who now heads the former group. He is one of three men–the other two were Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas–who represented Fatah on the PLO Executive Committee. He has never accepted even the 1993 Oslo agreement. In most ways, he is more representative of Fatah leadership than the Palestinian Authority’s relatively moderate two heads, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad.

What was Qaddumi doing in Tehran? Well, he has long been an ally of Syria which is Tehran’s closest ally. But there is something else going on here which is of historic importance and which shows the difference between reality and what is said in the Western media or governments. Not Egypt, not Saudi Arabia but Iran is now the mediator between Hamas and Fatah.

The Egyptians spent a lot of time negotiating with the two groups but never pushed very hard or achieved anything. The Saudis thought they had ensured cooperation with the recent Mecca agreement. But Hamas, another ally of Iran, used the deal to seize full power in the Gaza Strip and kick out Fatah altogether.

So it makes perfect sense for Palestinian leaders to see Iran holding the cards. If anyone is going to persuade Hamas to make up with Fatah it would be Tehran, the Islamist group’s sponsor. Of course, Iran is not going to do it but it can play games with Fatah, perhaps find Fatah people who, in exchange for power and money, might accept second place as a junior Palestinian partner of Hamas and Tehran.

Perhaps you thought the United States is now Fatah’s sponsor and good buddy. Well, Fatah is an equal-opportunity embezzler. Again, let me make clear my support for a strategy of talking with Fatah and helping it survive in the West Bank in exchange for its clamping down on terrorism and incitement. Fatah is preferable to Hamas. But a strong dose of cynicism and some tough bargaining is needed in this policy, which has been adopted by the United States, Israel, and (with a bit more ambiguity, yearning for the chance to appease Hamas) Europe.

As so often happens, however, the debate jumps out of one fire and into another. Now that U.S. policy has abandoned democracy as the magic incantation to solve the Middle East’s problems it simply has a new mantra, economic development. The argument is that if America funnels money to Fatah, the group will use the funds to benefit the people on the West Bank. And, in the best tradition of the American big city political boss, the Palestinians will reciprocate by cheering Fatah and booing Hamas.

But the American method is up against the Iranian method. Iran employs the appeal of intoxicating revolutionary rhetoric, a seductive use of Islam (the divine will wants you to do what we say), a cathartic orgy of hatred, an appeal to macho heroism, money into one’s pocket (to buy guns or live high on the non-hog), direct provision of social services to supporters, and encouraging macho and supposedly heroic violence.

If people were saints, the U.S. approach would be better. Given the reality of the Middle East, a combination of rewards (only in return for actual deeds) and punishments would be more effective. This is called power diplomacy and politicians or diplomats seem to understand it perfectly well except when it comes to the Middle East.

Instead, the American debate is largely over who to reward and to whom United States should prove itself nice and friendly. Consider the two camps furiously contending today.

The White House strategy is: We’ll be good to moderates so they’ll work with us against the bad guys. The label “moderate” was first bestowed on the masses; helping them as meaning urging more democracy. Now moderate allies are defined in the old-fashioned way as the regimes: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Fatah. In Iraq, the strategy is to keep fighting to show the United States helps the Shias stay in power and protects the Sunnis by pushing for compromise. The implication is that if America just gives everyone enough they will stand alongside it.

In contrast, the Democratic opposition’s general approach is: We’ll be nice to the radicals so they will become moderates. We will prove our willingness to compromise with Iran, Syria, and the Islamists, convincing them that we are not their enemy. We will get out of Iraq, too. Sometimes they argue that being more distant to Israel and a stronger advocate of the Palestinian cause (whatever and whoever that is nowadays) will prove that America is ok. “Oh, we get it,” one imagines the leaders of Syria, Iran, Hamas, and Hizballah saying, “we thought the Americans were our enemies but now we understand that they have our best interests at heart.”

The problem with both approaches is that they insist on expecting Middle Easterners to act like Americans. I can’t help but recalling several true anecdotes about this kind of mistake:

–How Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, in the mid-1950s, urged the two sides in the Arab-Israeli conflict two behave more like”Christian gentlemen.”

–Jordan’s King Hussein explaining to an interviewer that he would rule his country like Switzerland when his people began behaving like Swiss.

–An Iranian journalist explaining in the late 1940s, when asked why he condemned America but never the USSR, that the Russians killed people who criticized them (as Syria and Islamists do today).

Policy must be tough, cynical, and involved in equal trade-offs rather than proofs of good will or flattery designed to win friends. Iran knows that; America often and Europe usually doesn’t. That’s why flattering Mahmoud Abbas, showering money and arms on Fatah, and thinking one can turn the West Bank into a showcase of economic progress isn’t going to work. Nor will persuading the Arab world that America and Europe care about the Palestinians, want to give them a state, and don’t like Israel.

A reasonable strategy requires showing how unprofitable it is to be an enemy while helping those on the other side only to the extent that they cooperate. It means not having to apologize but getting those who flout your interests to apologize to you. It requires taking into account regional realities rather than sentimentalizing them into morality plays. It includes not expecting to solve neatly problems which have no solution.


Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in May 2007. Rubin’s columns can be read online at: http://gloria.idc.ac.il/articles/index.html

September 14, 2007 | Comments Off on Pilgrimage to Tehran

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