By Daniel Luban
Januaru 10, 2009 - As the war in Gaza approaches its third week, a chorus of influential voices in the U.S. media has cast the conflict as a proxy war in which the real enemy is not Hamas but Iran.
The result has been a growing tendency in the U.S. to view Gaza as simply one battleground in a larger war between Iran and the West, and to dismiss the stated concerns of the Palestinians as a mere smokescreen for Iranian influence.
But critics charge that this way of framing the conflict is both overly simplistic and agenda-driven. By overstating the importance of Iran's operational aid to Hamas, they claim, these opinion-makers aim to increase hostilities with Iran, to bolster an increasingly shaky Israeli rationale for war, and to curtail any inclination to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians.
For years, it has been a commonplace among neoconservatives that Iran is the real source of opposition to the U.S. and Israel throughout the Middle East, from Palestine to Lebanon to Iraq. During Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah in Lebanon, prominent neoconservatives urged the West to focus "less on Hamas and Hezbollah, and more on their paymasters and real commanders in Syria and Iran", as William Kristol wrote in the Weekly Standard.
Similarly, neoconservatives have taken the current war with Hamas as a sign that the West needs to take a harder line with Iran. "It's all about Iran," Michael Ledeen, a prominent Iran hawk based at the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies, wrote in National Review Online on Dec. 30. "[The Israelis] are left to contend with the tentacles of the terrorist hydra, while the main body remains untouched. They may chop off a piece of Hamas or Hezbollah, but it will regenerate and grab them again."
However, the belief that Hamas is merely an Iranian proxy has spread beyond neoconservative circles to be voiced by opinion-makers closer to the political centre. Self-described realist Robert Kaplan wrote in the Atlantic on Monday that "Israel's attack on Gaza is, in effect, an attack on Iran's empire...Our own diplomacy with Iran now rests on whether or not Israel succeeds."
In the New York Times, influential neoliberal Thomas Friedman implied that Iran was to blame for the outbreak of hostilities in Gaza, writing that Tehran can "stop and start the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at will". In the Los Angeles Times, Israeli commentators Yossi Klein Halevi and Michael B. Oren wrote an op-ed titled "In Gaza, the real enemy is Iran", which warned that if Hamas "manipulat[es] world opinion into the imposition of a premature ceasefire...[it] would mean another triumph for Iran".
And in the literature released by hawkish advocacy groups such as the Israel Project, Hamas is rarely mentioned without the adjective "Iran-backed".
It is widely accepted that Iran has in fact provided weaponry and other operational assistance to Hamas in recent years. However, there are few reliable estimates of the scope of this aid.
"I'm very sceptical whenever I see figures in the media," former State Department intelligence official Wayne White, now of the Middle East Institute, told IPS. "Even when I was in the intelligence community, exact details were often elusive."
Many feel that those blaming Iran for the Gaza crisis attach too much importance to Iran's operational aid to Hamas when they suggest that Hamas is nothing more than an Iranian "proxy".
White suggested that Iran's relationship with Hamas is "more symbiotic than dictatorial", and that its influence with Hamas is more limited than is portrayed in the media. "Iranian inspiration is being given far too much weight in the overall Israeli-Hamas equation. Hamas has every reason to make its own decisions, most of which are sufficiently militant to please the Iranians," he said.
Critics charge that framing the Gaza conflict as an U.S.-Iran proxy war is a tendentious move that is meant to advance several covert political goals.
The most obvious of these goals is to increase hostilities with Iran. Unsurprisingly, many of those espousing the "proxy war" argument, such as Ledeen, are advocates of regime change in Tehran, backed if necessary by military force.
But the proxy war argument has also been deployed to bolster the Israeli case for war in Gaza, as Israel's war aims have become increasingly slippery and elusive over the past two weeks.
Israeli officials have at times suggested that the war is intended to halt all rocket fire from Gaza, or to overthrow Hamas rule in Gaza, but both of these goals are viewed by many as unrealistic and the Israeli government has subsequently backed off of them.
Casting the military campaign as a struggle against Iranian power provides a broader rationale for war, and has been used as a way to rally support from U.S. policymakers who are sceptical of the campaign's wisdom. On this analysis, Israel is doing the U.S.'s dirty work by confronting Iranian power.
In this vein, the Wall Street Journal editorialised on Monday that the war would help President-elect Barack Obama's diplomatic efforts with Iran, since "the mullahs are going to be more interested in diplomacy if their military proxies have been defeated".
And hawkish liberal Jim Hoagland suggested in the Washington Post that Israel's attack was helping to hold off the possibility of a nuclear Iran, writing that "only Israel poses any threat of military action to halt Iran's drive to enrich enough uranium to build a nuclear bomb".
But one important consequence of the proxy war argument, critics say, has more to do with Palestine than with Iran. By portraying Hamas as nothing more than a projection of Iranian power, commentators implicitly reject any notion that the group may derive its influence from specifically Palestinian concerns.
By doing so, the critics argue, these commentators seek to assuage Israeli consciences by portraying Hamas as the product of a nebulous Islamist menace rather than of local grievances about occupation, refugees, or settlements.
But more than that, they seek to remove any impetus to compromise on such issues. If Iranian power is the real cause of Israel's Palestinian problem, then a local settlement with the Palestinians would do little to alleviate Israel's insecurity.
In response, a growing number of analysts have spoken out against this line of thinking.
"Yes, the conflict has been exploited on many sides and certainly by Iran and other hardliners in the region," wrote former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy of the New America Foundation on Monday. "[B]ut if the unaddressed Palestinian grievance did not exist then it would not be there to exploit."
White concurred in his assessment of the situation.
"The [proxy war] view is a very unsophisticated one," he told IPS. "This is at bottom a struggle between Hamas, along with many other Palestinians, and the Israelis."