January 31, 2009

Averting IRANIAN Influence in Post-War Gaza

By Shimon Shapira

Immediately upon the end of the fighting in Gaza, the international community will promote an extensive rehabilitation project with the objective of enabling the Palestinian population to return to their homes and get on with their civil and economic lives. The pictures of the destruction of buildings in Gaza as a result of the war are increasing the salience of the reconstruction issue across the Middle East, especially in Iran.

Middle Eastern states will likely have a critical role to play in this effort. Presently, the states of the region are deeply polarized, as witnessed in the Doha Summit on January 18. Qatar, Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Hamas attended, while Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia stayed away. Unfortunately, the new Iraq was also present.

The U.S., EU, and Israel all have an interest in cutting off post-war Gaza from the Iranian-Syrian axis. It is of prime importance to identify those who will provide the funds for Gaza rehabilitation, and who on the ground will implement the wide-ranging renewal projects. A reliable international mechanism is needed to prevent Iran from acquiring influence in post-war Gaza through any assistance programs.

There are important precedents to keep in mind concerning the link between rehabilitation and regional political influence. Following the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Iran and Hizbullah grasped the political and economic significance of the rehabilitation project in the Shiite areas of southern Lebanon damaged during the war. Iran, in tandem with Hizbullah, quickly resorted to the Waad (promise) company and employed it to channel most of the Iranian funds into the rehabilitation activities that Hizbullah performed in West Beirut and southern Lebanon.

In this framework, when the fighting ceased, Iran’s emissaries appeared with suitcases stuffed with dollars and distributed $12,000 in cash to every Shiite family whose house was destroyed and applied for assistance.

Within a few months, Iran had paved hundreds of kilometers of roads and rehabilitated houses and public institutions that were damaged during the fighting. Hizbullah directed the rehabilitation work among the Shiite population, while totally ignoring the central Lebanese government, and in this manner it regained and even reinforced its influence within the Shiite community.

The U.S. Treasury understood the implications of what Iran was doing in Lebanon through the Hizbullah-run Waad company. Undersecretary of the Treasury Stuart Levey bluntly noted: “The Waad Project is another example of Hizbullah’s use of deceptive tactics to support its military and terrorist apparatus.”

The U.S. Treasury noted that Waad not only rebuilt Lebanese homes, it also built up Hizbullah’s command center in South Beirut, underground weapons storage facilities, and military infrastructure.

In early 2007, the U.S. blacklisted Jihad al-Bina, Hizbullah’s construction company, for similar reasons. Clearly, funds moved through organizations controlled by terrorist groups can also be disguised and used for rearmament, as well.

Iran is already positioning itself for influence in post-war Gaza. On January 14, 2009, the Deputy Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Akbar Mohtashami, arrived in Lebanon heading a 40-man delegation. Mohtashami, who was the architect behind the establishment of Hizbullah in the early 1980s, arrived in Beirut in order to direct Iranian support for Hamas.

At a conference organized by Hizbullah under the auspices of the “International Forum for Resistance and Opposition to Imperialism and Solidarity Among People,” Mohtashami sat in the first row next to the deputy secretary-general of Hizbullah, Naim Qassem, the deputy of Hassan Nasrallah. Mohtashami explained in his address to the conference, which he delivered in Arabic rather than Farsi, that the muqawama (resistance) in Gaza is defending the honor of the entire nation and that what is happening in Gaza will influence all the opponents of the U.S. and Israel.

Based on the major lessons from the Second Lebanon War, it would be prudent to anticipate that Iran will seek to provide immediate assistance in order to rehabilitate Hamas in Gaza.

Just as in Lebanon, Iran will strive to channel the rehabilitation funds for Gaza to its Sunni protégé – Hamas – in order to preserve Hamas’ ability to reassert its rule over Gaza. Sealing the Philadelphi Route effectively will not only block the supply of Iranian rockets, but also the flow of Iranian cash into Gaza.

Juxtaposing the Doha Conference, attended by Ahmadinejad, and the Sharm el-Sheikh Conference on January 18, with the heads of government from the main EU states, it is clear that the main competition for influence in post-war Gaza is between Iran, allied with its regional partners, and Egypt, backed by the West.

Therefore, the main objective for Israel and the international community should be to deny Iran the attainment of this objective and, conversely, to transform the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, into the principal factor, along with Egypt, entrusted with the rehabilitation work in Gaza.

The World Bank can provide oversight of how the funds are being used. This is the only way to guarantee the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza and convert Hamas’ severe military debacle into political currency in Gaza.