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Crisis in the Middle East

Interview with Gilbert Achcar*

Friday 17 March 2006, by Chihan AKSAN

With the intensification of the war in Iraq and the escalation in Palestine, the crisis in the Middle East is deepening.

With the recent rise in sectarian violence in Iraq, the suspicion that the U.S. is fostering civil strife in order to delay the withdrawal of its troops has gained strength. What is your response to this?

In a sense, this has been the case from the very beginning of the occupation. The United States chose what it thought would be a comfortable position, that of an arbiter between various contending factions and components of the Iraqi population. And this choice translated into the way they formed the institutions, very much based on a distribution of power and seats between the three major components of the population: the Kurds, the Arab Shia and the Arab Sunni.

The situation in the country has actually worsened very much since last year, when the United States started losing its grip on the local institutions as a result of the January election. The elected assembly was no longer under full U.S. control and since then we have seen increasingly frenzied attempts by the occupier at using whatever differences and divisions there are among Iraqis. This is the very old imperial recipe of ‘divide and rule’.

What do you think this will lead to? Are we talking of the division of the country between the three groups? Or do you think the U.S. is not ready for that alternative at the moment?

That would certainly not be a first option, and I even doubt that it would really be a second best option for the United States, if only for the simple reason that it would lead to some kind of Shia state controlling the bulk of Iraq’s oil. Such a state could only be a close ally of Iran and would unleash a dangerous dynamic for the whole area, including the Saudi Kingdom where the main oil producing area is inhabited by a Shia majority. This is definitely not a scenario that suits Washington’s interests. Moreover, it would destabilise the whole area and have very dangerous consequences for the global economy, as it would of course immediately affect the price of oil which has already started skyrocketing in the last couple of years. So I don’t believe that the partition scenario – although it has been formulated or favoured by some people, especially in some neo-con circles, as a Plan B for Iraq – is something that Washington could seriously consider as representing a favourable outcome for U.S. interests.

How will Hamas be transformed by its electoral victory?

It’s quite hard to say because it depends on many factors, including the official reaction of the U.S. and Europe. For the time being they are testing or still pondering the different positions they could take. It also depends on how Israel will behave. But what I would say is that in light of what Hamas is, the way it has built its own victory, the kind of programme it embodies, I can hardly see as likely the rosy scenario that some people, out of wishful thinking, believe to be possible – that Hamas will just adapt to what they deem to be the ‘reality’ and join the so-called ‘peace process’ in some way. I don’t think that it will be the case, because I don’t think that Hamas would be willing to just abandon its political identity with such speed and for nothing real in exchange. And I don’t think that the rosy scenario is possible, mainly because there is presently in Israel a very stubborn, very right-wing kind of majority and government and, in reality, Sharon and his followers in power are people who are, at the bottom of it, quite happy with this situation. It provides them with a pretext to go forward with their unilateral moves, shaping the ‘final settlement’ that suits them.

The U.S., EU and Israeli response to the Hamas victory has been to threaten diplomatic isolation and the cessation of funds for the Palestinian Authority. Iran has reacted by pledging its own financial assistance and calling for other Muslim nations to follow suit. Recent reports in the Arab Press, although denied by Hamas, claim that Iran will give as much as $250 million to the Hamas-led government. What is the significance of all this?

Well, it just shows that the attempt at isolating Hamas, which actually means not isolating Hamas as such, but the elected government of the Palestinian people, will just backfire. It is obvious that the victory of Hamas in Palestine is also a major victory for Iran, for Syria, for all the adversaries of the United States in that part of the world. They are quite happy with this victory, and Iran has thus been provided with another political card in the area and is already using it.

Iran was actually supporting Hamas long before the last election and Hamas reciprocated by coming out in solidarity with Iran after the recent provocative statements of the Iranian President. A few weeks before the election, Hamas proclaimed its support to the Iranian President and Khaled Meshaal, the Hamas leader who lives in exile in Damascus, went to Tehran to confirm this support.

The Iranian government is saying that it is going to supply Hamas with what the Palestinian people need in terms of financial backing, and that’s why even the Arab clients of the United States find themselves put in a corner and compelled to enter into this outbidding with Tehran – because they are very much afraid that Tehran might appear as the only supporter of Hamas. They feel that they must support Hamas, because they know that the Arab public opinion in this kind of confrontation between Hamas on the one hand and Israel and Europe on the other will, of course, stand fully on the side of Hamas.

* Interview conducted in March 2006 by Cihan Aksan, editor of State of Nature and reproduced with the authorisation of editors. The original text is available at this address :