Well before this most recent Israeli attack on Gaza, the Iranian regime has been an outspoken critic of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Its position vis-à-vis the Palestinian plight is set in sharp contrast to the less obvious role being played by the Arab states. But before Iran is to be lauded, it must be noted that the regime has a tried and tested strategy of using conflicts in the region to garner strength and support, in order to extend its regional influence. Indeed, the way in which it seized upon the conflict in Iraq and helped fuel sectarian violence is a prime example of this, and the inextricable links between Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon and the regime, is another. The current conflict in Gaza represents another key opportunity for Iran.
Although Iran is accused of providing arms and financial assistance to Hamas, the realistic possibility of Iran being able to have this sort of access to a place as notoriously inaccessible as Gaza, is in doubt. On the other hand, Iranian vocal support for Hamas is unambiguous. Whether or not this support is merely part of a cynical opportunism being employed for political gain is to a certain extent of little relevance at this stage because its loud and unrestrained reaction to the Israeli invasion of Gaza is putting it ahead in the game of "one-upmanship" with the surrounding states.
The Arab initiative which helped to the pass the UNSC resolution 1860 (calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza), has been somewhat overshadowed by the initial slow reaction to the violence against Gaza. Meanwhile, the Iranian regime called for an emergency meeting of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Countries) which was ignored by the majority of member states; Iran announced that a special court had been set up to try Israelis for its air attacks on Gaza; the regime boasted that 70,000 students signed up for martyrdom operations and also went as far as to call upon Islamic countries to cut oil exports to Israel's supporters. But perhaps most significant were the words of Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki who commented that:"Gazans were justified in their belief that some Arab countries had betrayed them."
The Iranian regime does not have the political clout to exert the kind of pressure which would change the situation in Gaza in the way that the Arab states do, nevertheless its fighting rhetoric, however empty, has the potential to make a significant impact on the audiences the Iranian regime is targeting. When considering the domestic political context of the regime, the attack on Gaza could not have come at a better time for Ahmadinejad's struggling government. In the run up to the Iranian Presidential elections in June 2009, Ahmadinejad will be facing further pressure at home as a result of high unemployment levels, inflation standing at 30 per cent and the recent submission of a bill to parliament which is set to eliminate the subsidisation of fuel and electricity in Iran. If nothing else, Gaza is serving as a tool with which Ahmadinejad can distract Iranian public attention away from the problems being faced at home. The aggressive stance adopted by the Iranian regime on the Gaza issue also appeals to Ahmadinejad's traditional hard-line support base inside Iran. This will serve as some much needed propaganda to bolster the image he wants to cultivate as defender of Muslims against the imperialist ambitions of the US and Israel.
Most crucially however, this is a strategy which is serving to increase the popularity of the Iranian regime across the Arab world. The support the Iranian regime is showing Hamas is a critical move in terms of Iran's bid to assert itself as "leader" of the Muslim world. Hamas is a Sunni movement and Iran is highlighting the fact that its support for Muslims is able to transcend both ideological and religious cleavages. The juxtaposition of the Iranian stance with the initial apparent inaction of Arab regimes reveals a startling contrast, which is not lost on the Arab public. The Iranian regime is proving to be adept at propagating the ideology of Political Shi'ism under the cover of anti-Zionism and anti-Americanism. Iran is aware that this message is going to appeal to more than a few isolated pockets of "militants" in the Arab world. The reason for this is that the Iranian regime is articulating ideas and sentiments which some Arab regimes are not, much to the disappointment of the Arab public.
The Iranian Gaza strategy does not come without risk. Indeed, the criticism it is leveling at the Arab world will prove to be a setback to the diplomatic links Iran has been working hard to cultivate in the face of US pressure on the Arab world to keep Iran in isolation. Egypt, in particular, has come under harsh criticism for keeping its border with Gaza closed and only allowing a minimal influx of injured Palestinians. Iranian-Egyptian relations made some positive progress in 2008, but efforts will have to start from scratch in the aftermath of the outcome of this attack on Gaza. Iran is also likely to calculate that the Israeli attack on Gaza means the IDF is less likely to launch an assault on Iran in the coming months. However, the fact that Iran is actively advertising its moral support for Hamas (if nothing else) is a dangerous game given that Hamas is consistently being denounced as a terrorist organization by the US and Israel. Iranian vocal support for such an organization is a high risk strategy which could prove to have laid the ground work for a justification for an eventual attack on Iran, in the wider framework of the "war on terror", which has been cited by Israel to describe the context of the attack on Gaza.
Iran's isolation from the US has allowed it to take advantage of the political gains to be made by showing support for Hamas. The fact that many of the surrounding Arab regimes are so heavily implicated with the US means that they do not have the room to maneuver that Iran does on this subject. To that end, Iran is currently winning the propaganda war and using these gains to put itself forward as the "true" representative of Muslim public opinion. What some Arab regimes must understand is that lethargy on such subjects is serving to increase the popularity of the Iranian regime across the Arab world. Iran's political success from this episode, even if it proves to be only short term, could prove to be a political embarrassment for the Arab regimes in the long term and may possibly bring wider and more dangerous political repercussions and domestic instability.