I had just readied my post for today when a very dear Jewish scholar friend sent me the email I have printed below. I found it so comprehensive, fascinating, so sensible that I wanted you all to read it, particularly on the heels of my Sunday Faith Blog yesterday about praying for Israel. I hope you find this thinking as interesting and valuable as I do:
Middle Eastern politics is Byzantine beyond Byzantine, with an added dose of both real and fictional conspiratorial thinking, dollops of both real and imaginary paranoid, simple power plays and too many leaders who just disregard any human life.
So, with that cheerful introduction: Iran has regional hegemonic aspirations: those are based both on itself as the Iranian nation AND its self-identified role as the world leader of Islam (both Shia and Sunni).
Throughout its history too, Iran/Persia has had a complicated and competitive relationship with Arabs and Arabic. On the one hand, Islam is clearly born in Arabia, and master of Arabic is necessary for religious mastery of Islam.
Yet Iranians are also aware of its pre-Islamic history, its own rich language and culture, and its central role at various times in the Islamic world.
In light of this, Iran sponsors global Islamic organizations, both what we in the West might consider “just” religious, but in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia the distinction between “just” religious and political is hazy. Indeed, a strong argument can be made that our notions of separation of Church and State are simply inconceivable to the dedicated traditional Shia religious mind.
As aside: Since Shia Islam was political ineffective for centuries following the hegemony of the Sunni Ottoman Empire, Shia developed a sort of political-religious quietism, in which its highest political aspirations would need to wait until the appropriate anointed one — a descendant of Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali — would rule. The Ayatollah Khomeini’s religious intellectual innovation was to displace that quietism with the revolutionary fervor that sweep Iran in the late ’70’s.
Thus in its efforts to assert regional hegemony, Iran has identified, in my almost completely speculative opinion, a number of long and short term obstacles:
—The American/Western Presence specifically with regard to oil extraction;
—The Russian presence (worst under the Soviets, but still unacceptable under Putin);
—Sunni unity/hegemony, specifically in the religious leadership roles of the Saudis and the Egyptians (in the form of the pre-eminent institution of Arabic Islamic Study, Al-Azhar, which was established around 970 CE).
Note that Israel is not on the list—it is actually a wonderful propaganda ploy for the Iranians (and the leadership would love to damage the country any way it can), but Israel is an “irritiant” to Iran only inasmuch as (i) it occupies territory Iran considers Muslim land (ii) it is an “agent” of the West (and therefore of social and political modernization) and (iii) as a Jewish state, it disrupts traditional Islamic views about the “natural” subordinate status to which Jews (and Christians) belong.
In the immediate situation, the Abraham Accords formalized long pursued, de facto alliances between Israel and the Sunni state, which legitimizes Israel, and creates potentially a very effective anti-Iranian front.
Iran has used its support of the Sunni Hamas (and Shia Hezbollah) as tools not only against Israel, but to firm up weakening alliances with Sunni states, like Hamas’ traditional funders in the Persian Gulf and the Saudi.
Remember, every side plays ever side for any advantage it can extract. Like I said, Byzantine beyond Byzantine.
The Abraham Accords threaten to a breaking point those other tactical alliances.
The Iranians would love to have the Biden administration jump back into some form of the Nuclear deal. They figure Biden will stay true to the Obama foreign policy, which essentially granted Iran much greater regional power and significance, as Michael Doran pointed out long ago.
My bet is that the Iranians calculate, rightly or wrongly, that the bad blood between Obama and Netanyahu will infect relations between Biden and Netanyahu—this war strengthens Bibi’s internal political standing.
Israel was on the verge prior to this violence to have surprisingly the Islamic Party, Ra’am, lead by Mansour Abbas be the decisive party for determining the Prime Minister. This would have been an incredible watershed experience, for the better in my estimation, for Israeli politics. If that had happened, Hamas, and perhaps even Fatah’s, stock would have declined, if not crashed altogether.
By initiating the violence, my bet again is that the Iranians (and Hamas) want to take off the political table the legitimization of Arab-Israeli democratic involvement.
This part, I fear, the Iranians will accomplish, although at the end of the day I also strongly suspect we will be informed that Iranian intelligence assets were key in sparking the violence, capitalizing on the same dismay that struck the US last spring when BLM capitalized on the covid restrictions social insanity.
I sincerely hope I have thoroughly confused you, for if not, then clearly I have failed to add the necessary, inevitable Byzantinian twists and turns. If you want a simple story, may I suggest you re-watch Game of Thrones?