What's the link between the plot to bomb the Saudi ambassador and the Gilad Shalit release deal? Iran's looking weak -- and that's scary.
- By Martin Indyk<p> Martin Indyk is vice president and director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. </p> <p> On Oct. 24, Brookings will host a discussion on the issues raised at the final presidential debate. FP's Susan Glasser will moderate the panel, which will include Brookings Senior Fellows Robert Kagan, Suzanne Maloney, Kenneth Lieberthal, and Bruce Riedel. Martin Indyk will offer opening remarks. </p>
While it may not be immediately obvious, there is an important connection between the two big Middle East stories that broke Tuesday, Oct. 11 — the negotiated prisoner transfer agreement between Hamas and Israel for the release of Gilad Shalit and the arrest of Iranian Quds Force agent Manssor Arbabsiar — a connection that demonstrates Iran’s fading influence since the emergence of the Arab Spring.
Seldom is the Iranian hand in terrorism revealed as clearly as it was Tuesday in the careful details provided by the U.S. Justice Department. The Iranian regime, operating through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), does its best to operate without fingerprints as it deploys terrorism as a tool of its own brand of statecraft. But here in phone transcripts and wire transfers is evidence that "elements of the Iranian government" — specifically senior officers of the IRGC’s Quds Force — were responsible for ordering and orchestrating a brazen terrorist assassination against the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, in a downtown Washington restaurant.
The Iranian hand in Hamas’s terrorist activity has also been revealed in the past, particularly in arms shipments bound for Gaza that were intercepted by the Israeli Navy. But Iran’s role in Hamas’s holding of Shalit has been less obvious and little remarked. The negotiations for his release have been tortuous and long-winded, mediated by German and Egyptian intelligence officials. At critical moments in the past, Iran intervened via Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s external leader, to scotch the deal. Tehran’s motives were fairly obvious: The best way for Iran to spread its influence into the Arab heartland is to stoke the flames of conflict with Israel. Any prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel would take fuel off the fire.
But Iran’s influence over Hamas’s external leadership has been slipping lately. Based in Damascus, Syria, Meshaal and his colleagues have found themselves in an awkward position as the Syrian awakening has raged around them. As kinsmen of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood whose Syrian branch has become a target of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite thugs, they could not support the regime, even though their Iranian masters demanded they do so. Instead, as the going got tough, Meshaal got going, opening talks with the Egyptian interim military government about relocating from Damascus to Cairo (where, as a result of the revolution, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood had gained new influence). The price: reconciliation with Abu Mazen (Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas) and acquiescence in a prisoner swap deal with Israel.
The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal was announced in Cairo in May. In mid-July, Egyptian mediators conveyed a new, more reasonable Hamas offer to Israel that triggered negotiations that culminated in Tuesday’s prisoner swap announcement. In short, the Hamas-Israel deal may be a victory for Hamas, for Egypt-Israel relations — and for the Shalit family, of course — but it’s also a blow to Iran. It indicates that the Iranians have lost control of one of their key Arab terrorist proxies to Egypt, their archrival for influence in the Arab world.
Iran’s other Arab archrival is Saudi Arabia. Americans tend to view Tuesday’s revelation of an Iranian terrorist plot through the prism of a brazen attempt to promote an attack on American soil. But the IRGC clearly designed it as a twofer, assassinating a symbol of the Saudi regime at the same time as it murdered American diners in downtown Washington. We’ve seen Iran do this before: The 1996 Khobar Towers bombing by Saudi Hezbollah killed 19 U.S. soldiers on Saudi soil.
What can we conclude from the byzantine connections between Tuesday’s two events? Contrary to the confident predictions that Iran would be the beneficiary of the Arab Spring, its efforts to spread its influence into the Arab heartland are now in trouble. It is losing its Hamas proxy to Egypt. Its Syrian ally is reeling. Turkey has turned against it. When the Iranian regime finds itself in a corner, it typically lashes out. Perhaps that explains why Arbabsiar’s Iranian handlers told him to "just do it quickly. It’s late…."