‘NYT’ analysis that Gaza assault was ‘test run’ for Iran war is ripped apart

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The Iron Dome system, shown above, was a focus of a New York Times story claiming that Iran was a motivation for why Israel waged an assault on Gaza (Photo: Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

After the intense fighting died down between Hamas, other Palestinian armed groups and Israel, The New York Times printed a story pointing to Iran as a motivation for why Israel waged its assault. Sourced to US and Israeli officials, the article, authored by David Sanger and Thom Shanker, posited that “the exchange was something of a practice run for any future armed confrontation with Iran, featuring improved rockets that can reach Jerusalem and new antimissile systems to counter them.”

The article focused on the U.S.-financed Iron Dome system as a potential model for how Israel could deal with rockets from Iran. It also reported that Israeli officials say that “one key to their war-gaming has been cutting off Iran’s ability to slip next-generation missiles into the Gaza Strip or Lebanon, where they could be launched by Iran’s surrogates, Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, during any crisis over sanctions or an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.”

I was skeptical of this line of analysis, and it just so happened that I was interviewing an expert on the Israeli-Iranian conflict that day for a radio show I was co-hosting with journalist Lizzy Ratner. (You can listen to the whole show–Beyond the Pale on WBAI–here. Included in the show was an interview with Yousef Munayyer on the Gaza assault.)

We spoke with Mark Perry, a journalist and historian who has broken a number of stories on Israel, the US and Iran for Foreign Policy. I asked him what he thought of this analysis, and here’s what he said:

I’m quite skeptical about the line of argument that says that Israel’s defenses were a test for a future conflict with Iran. Iran’s munitions and its missiles are much more robust even than the Fajr-3 or Fajr-5 that Hamas deployed, and they’re really very dangerous, and Iron Dome would do little to stop the kind of heavy rocketry that Iran would use in case of an Israeli attack on Iran. So I think that if there’s a conflict between Israel and Iran–and we hope that there’s not–but if there is, the last thing we’ll probably be reading about in that conflict is the effectiveness of the Iron Dome. Iron Dome is a system deployed by the United States to stop the kind of rocket fire, small rocket fire, that can come from Gaza. It’s just not calibrated enough, or robust enough, to stop heavy munitions. So I don’t think that Israel engaged in this war in order to test out its systems for a possible future war with Iran. I think it engaged in this war to stop the rocket fire from the south and to test whether the United States and the new administration was as married to Israel now as it was in the past, and both of those very limited goals have been accomplished.

But that’s only one part of the story the Times got wrong. The Daily Beast’s Ali Gharib, writing at the Open Zion blog, pointed out that the quote Sanger and Shanker printed from Israeli ambassador Michael Oren was misleading. Oren “likened the insertion of Iranian missiles into Gaza to the Cuban missile crisis,” the paper reported. But as Gharib writes, the analogy is imprecise because “[John F] Kennedy averted war with both Cuba and the Soviet Union. Apparently, Benjamin Netanyahu is no Jack Kennedy.”

Even more important was Robert Wright’s takedown of this piece in The Atlantic. The Times said plainly that Hamas is “Iran’s surrogate.” But that totally misses the changing developments in the region that have pulled Hamas away from Iran, so much so that it’s inaccurate to call Hamas an “Iranian surrogate.” Of course, there’s a reason why Israel likes to push this line, as Wright points out:

It helps justify the recent bombardment of Gaza (since one goal of the operation was to deplete an Iranian-supplied missile stock that Iran could in theory activate against Israel in the event of war). (2) It helps justify Netanyahu’s uncompromising stance toward Iran (since, the more pervasively threatening Iran seems to Israelis, the easier it is to convince them that the Iranian regime is beyond the reach of negotiation).

But that doesn’t mean The New York Times should be spinning the recent Gaza fighting in favor of the Israeli line. Here’s Wright’s analysis on why the notion that Hamas is an “Iranian surrogate” is wrong:

It’s certainly true that Hamas had, and still has, lots of Iranian-supplied missiles, the product of a close relationship that goes back years. But this past year has seen developments that changed the relationship.

First, Hamas ended its relationship with the Syrian regime and moved its leadership out of Syria–a move that not only strained relations with Syrian ally Iran but may have deeply altered them. In March, a Hamas official said Hamas would not serve as Iran’s retaliatory surrogate in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran and would not get involved in an Israel-Iran war.

Second, the sudden slack in Hamas’s relationship with Iran seems to have been taken up by Qatar, which is now bankrolling Hamas, and, in a different way, by Egypt, which is closer to Hamas under President Morsi than it was under Hosni Mubarek. This shift in Hamas’s source of support–from Iran and Syria toward Qatar and Egypt–could prove constructive in the long run, since both Qatar and Egypt are members of the global establishment and seem to want to stay that way.

None of this means Hamas’s relationship with Iran is over. Indeed, with Hamas now basking in the glow of what it’s calling a victory over Israel, gratitude for the missiles Iran sent to Gaza is on conspicuous display.
Still, Hamas’s behavior during the conflict with Israel may say more about its relationship with Iran than any niceties emanating from Gaza afterwards.

After all this criticism was directed at the Times, a separate article printed today reports on the evolving Middle East and accurately takes into account the change in the Hamas-Iran relationship.

Reporting from Ramallah, Neil MacFarquhar points out rightly that “uprising, wars and economics have altered the landscape of the region, paving the way for a new axis to emerge, one led by a Sunni Muslim alliance of Egypt, Qatar and Turkey. That triumvirate played a leading role in helping end the eight-day conflict between Israel and Gaza, in large part by embracing Hamas and luring it further away from the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah fold, offering diplomatic clout and promises of hefty aid.” MacFarquhar further reports that “Hamas — which received missiles from Iran that reached Israel’s northern cities — broke with the Iranian axis last winter, openly backing the rebellion against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. But its affinity with the Egypt-Qatar-Turkey axis came to fruition this fall.” That’s quite a shift from saying that Hamas is an “Iranian surrogate.”

Perhaps someone at the Times has been reading The Atlantic and The Daily Beast and decided to correct course.

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