The Iranian Connection

What’s the link between the plot to bomb theSaudi ambassador and the Gilad Shalit release deal? Iran’s looking weak — andthat’s scary.

BY MARTIN INDYK | OCTOBER 12, 2011

While it may not be immediately obvious,there is an important connection between the two big Middle East stories thatbroke Tuesday, Oct. 11 — the negotiated prisoner transfer agreement betweenHamas and Israel for the release of Gilad Shalit and the arrest of Iranian QudsForce agent Manssor Arbabsiar — a connection that demonstrates Iran’s fadinginfluence since the emergence of the Arab Spring.

Seldom is the Iranian hand in terrorismrevealed as clearly as it was Tuesday in the careful details provided by theU.S. Justice Department. The Iranian regime, operating through the Islamic RevolutionaryGuard Corps (IRGC), does its best to operate without fingerprints as it deploysterrorism as a tool of its own brand of statecraft. But here in phonetranscripts and wire transfers is evidence that “elementsof the Iranian government” — specifically senior officers of the IRGC’sQuds Force — were responsible for ordering and orchestrating a brazenterrorist assassination against the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir, in a downtownWashington restaurant.

The Iranian hand in Hamas’s terroristactivity has also been revealed in the past, particularly in arms shipmentsbound for Gaza that were intercepted by the Israeli Navy. But Iran’s role inHamas’s holding of Shalit has been less obvious and little remarked. Thenegotiations for his release have been tortuous and long-winded, mediated byGerman and Egyptian intelligence officials. At critical moments in the past,Iran intervened via Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s external leader, to scotch thedeal. Tehran’s motives were fairly obvious: The best way for Iran to spread itsinfluence into the Arab heartland is to stoke the flames of conflict withIsrael. Any prisoner swap deal between Hamas and Israel would take fuel off thefire.

But Iran’s influence over Hamas’s externalleadership has been slipping lately. Based in Damascus, Syria, Meshaal and hiscolleagues have found themselves in an awkward position as the Syrian awakeninghas raged around them. As kinsmen of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood whose Syrianbranch has become a target of President Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite thugs, theycould not support the regime, even though their Iranian masters demanded theydo so. Instead, as the going got tough, Meshaal got going, opening talks withthe Egyptian interim military government about relocating from Damascus toCairo (where, as a result of the revolution, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhoodhad gained new influence). The price: reconciliation with Abu Mazen (PalestinianPrime Minister Mahmoud Abbas) and acquiescence in a prisoner swap deal withIsrael.

The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal wasannounced in Cairo in May. In mid-July, Egyptian mediators conveyed a new,more reasonable Hamas offer to Israel that triggered negotiations thatculminated in Tuesday’s prisoner swap announcement. In short, theHamas-Israel deal may be a victory for Hamas, for Egypt-Israel relations — andfor the Shalit family, of course — but it’s also a blow to Iran. Itindicates that the Iranians have lost control of one of their key Arabterrorist 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 plotthrough the prism of a brazen attempt to promote an attack on American soil. Butthe IRGC clearly designed it as a twofer, assassinating a symbol of the Saudiregime at the same time as it murdered American diners in downtown Washington. We’veseen Iran do this before: The 1996 Khobar Towers bombing by Saudi Hezbollahkilled 19 U.S. soldiers on Saudi soil.

What can we conclude from the byzantine connectionsbetween Tuesday’s two events? Contrary to the confident predictions that Iranwould be the beneficiary of the Arab Spring, its efforts to spread itsinfluence into the Arab heartland are now in trouble. It is losing itsHamas 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. Perhapsthat explains why Arbabsiar’s Iranian handlers toldhim to “just do it quickly. It’s late….”

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