A Coalition Against Nature
Why Does It Work ?
by Ely Karmon, Ph.D.

The Proteus Monograph Series
Volume 1, Issue 5
May 2008

About the Author

Dr. Ely Karmon has written extensively on international terrorism and has participated to numerous international conferences. His book entitled “Coalitions between Terrorist Organizations. Revolutionaries, Nationalists, Islamists (1968-2000)” was published in 2005 by Martinus Nijhof Publishers. Dr. Karmon is a Senior Research Scholar at the International Policy Institute for Counter-terrorism, and since 2003, also at he Institute for Policy and Strategy, he Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya, Israel.

Dr. Karmon holds a B.A. in English and French Culture from the Hebrew University, Jerusalem. He earned both his M.A and Ph.D. from Haifa University. He took a Licence in International Relations from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques, and a Licence in Bantu languages from the Ecole de Langues Orientales, Paris.

He has been a Senior Research Scholar at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya since 1997. He lectured on Terrorism and Guerrilla in Modern Times at he Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya and at the IDF Military College; on International Terrorism at Bar-Ilan University, Israel (2002/3); and on the subjects of International Terrorism and European Extremist Parties and Organizations at Haifa University (1992-2000).

Dr. Karmon was the Shari and Herb Rosen visiting fellow at he Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2002, which published his policy paper “Fight on All Fronts: Hizballah, the War on Terror, and the War in Iraq” (December 2003). He is a member of the International Permanent Observatory (IPO) on Security Measures during Majors Events at the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), Turin, and an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), London, UK.

Dr. Karmon has been involved in several NATO workshops on terrorism and on the Mediterranean Dialogue. He also serves as advisor to the Israeli Ministry of Defense, and served as advisor of the Anti-Semitism Monitoring Forum of the Israeli Government Secretariat.

Table of Contents

Historical Background
The Building of the Triple Alliance: Iran, Syria, Hizballah (1980-1992)
The Building of the “Axis of Destabilization” (1992-2001)
The “Axis of Destabilization” after 9/11 and the War in Iraq
The “Axis” Involvement in Iraq
The Second Lebanon War (July-August 2006
The United States and Western Strategies in Challenging the “Axis of Destabilization”
Israel’s Counter-terrorism Strategy
Achievements of the “Axis of Destabilization”
The Alliance: Future Scenarios
The Predicament of the Iranian Nuclear Project

[T]he only vital and efective axis in the region is that between Tehran and Damascus. They are the two capitals which enjoy a degree of strength and a measure of independence that allows them to remain unafected by direct political pressure.(1)(Hizballah Voice of the Oppressed (radio station), 27 April 1991.)


To this “old” alliance one must add a newcomer, the Palestinian movement Hamas, an actor who, for years, has been derailing the fragile peace process between Israel and the Palestinians through the use of indiscriminate terrorism; an actor whose success in taking control of the
Palestinian Authority could bring an end to any hope of solution to this central conlict.

Strangely, this is an alliance against nature that should hardly function:

Iran’s Shia theocratic regime allied with Syria’s Ba’athist secular “socialist” regime, a country where some 80% of the population is Sunni.

Syria’s Ba’athist secular regime cooperating with a Shia radical Islamist
movement, Hizballah, while the natural ally of Syria in Lebanon is the Shia Amal secular organization.

The Palestinian Hamas, a branch of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood (MB) allied with Iran’s Shia theocratic regime.

The Palestinian Hamas, a branch of the Sunni MB allied with Syria’s Ba’athist secular regime, which killed some 20.000 Syrian MB members in 1982.

The Sunni Palestinian Hamas cooperating with the Shia Hizballah (in the Palestinian Authority and in Lebanon, where hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live) while in Iraq the Sunni and Shia radicals ight each other ferociously.

The Middle East finds itself these days in a very complex and dangerous situation, a situation that could lead to a major strategic upheaval of historic dimension if the Western democratic countries are not able to surmount their weaknesses, disunity, and indecision.

If indeed, as it looks for now, Iran’s rogue regime will achieve a nuclear umbrella, its regional hegemonic ambitions could aggravate the already volatile situation in the Middle East. It seems that the expectation of Iran’s allies that it will soon achieve a nuclear capability is the main source of its present and future power projection in the region, while U.S. military power is ofset by the daily media image of the Iraqi insurgency, partly fueled by Iran itself.

Paradoxically, the achievements of the Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas alliance have become more visible and threatening since the war in Afghanistan and Iraq. While the overthrowing of the Taliban regime was intended to destroy an Islamist fanatical regime and the al-Qaeda hardcore leadership and infrastructure it harbored, and the eradication of Saddam Hussein’s regime was expected to remove the threat of a rogue nuclear actor, it was also intended to isolate the Tehran regime.

The initial failure of the stabilizing political process in Iraq, after a brilliant U.S. military victory, permitted Iran to turn the tables on the Bush administration.

The government of Iraq, most of its territory, and the majority of its oil resources are controlled by Shia movements with historic and ideological links to the Tehran regime. Iran can also rely on the forces of Moqtada al-Sadr and rogue splinter groups to open new fronts against U.S. and coalition forces in case of need.

Syria has been indeed weakened by the withdrawal of its army from Lebanon and the international pressure after the assassination of Raik Hariri, but the Damascus regime maintains a strong grip on its Sunni majority population at home, still has strong cards in Lebanon, and continues to arm Hizballah and to host and support all the radical Palestinian groups opposed to the peace process. Syria continues to give some freedom of action to Ba’athist and Islamist insurgents in Iraq, although in a more covert and discreet manner.

Hizballah, Tehran’s closest ally, has become, with Syrian support, a state-within-the-state in Lebanon, potentially able to become the country’s arbiter if not actual ruler. It is actively involved in the destabilization of the Palestinian arena and has a growing role in supporting the Shia anti-American forces in Iraq to destabilize that country.

The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians is practically paralyzed, in great part due to the active support given by Iran, Syria, and Hizballah to Hamas and other radical Palestinian factions. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, threatens the Fatah-controlled West Bank, and is able to derail any negotiating peace process by using terrorist attacks.

The inconclusive results of the Second Lebanon War of July-August 2006, the Hamas military coup in Gaza, and the continual bombing of Israeli cities and villages has diminished Israel’s deterrence versus the terrorist organizations, Iran, and Syria.

It should be noted that this Shia dominated coalition has succeeded in attracting important Sunni elements, like Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and thus inluence other radical Sunni groups throughout the Middle East.

On the negative side of the axis’ balance, it should be mentioned that the threat of the Shia Crescent has hastened the attempts to build a moderate Sunni counter-alliance, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf countries, that could possibly include Israel as a quiet partner. It has also produced the growing opposition of the international community to Iran’s nuclear project and its hegemonic ambitions.

The regime sees itself as the spearhead of global transformation, as Ahmadinejad put it: “hanks to the blood of the martyrs, a new Islamic revolution has arisen.…he wave of the Islamic revolution will soon reach the entire world….he Iranian people…[can] quickly become an invincible global power…as soon as it achieves advanced technologies.”(2)

What makes this strange unnatural alliance work is foremost the strong religious ideologies that shape the strategy of three of the actors: Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas.

The Tehran regime, based on the revolutionary doctrine of Ayatollah Khomeini, has implemented its creed through an aggressive strategy, after crushing all internal dissension and in spite of the bloody war with Iraq. The apocalyptical overtone of Mahdism in some of the leadership circles makes this ideology even more dangerous.

Hizballah, as proved by its covenant and the open and persistent declarations and deeds of its leaders, follows closely the religious ideology and the strategy of export of the Khomeinist revolution.

Hamas, as a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest Sunni Islamist movement, sees jihad as a general duty of all Muslims and is the only MB group involved in systematic warfare against Israel and “world Zionism.” Pan-Arabism and the Greater Syria concept continue to play an important role in Syria’s policy, although today they mainly serve the interests of the minority Alawi regime in Damascus.

The alliance has a strong, determined leader: Iran is the engine that drags the three minor members, the conductor of the “quartet.” Iran is a major regional power with a decided leadership, a regional hegemonic vision, huge oil resources, a large army, and an advanced military industry, and it is on the verge of becoming the ninth nuclear power in the world.

The axis has succeeded in obtaining a great part of its objectives because the four players have no moral constraints in using terrorism and subversion against their external adversaries while they maintain their power at home through a ruthless authoritarian regime, in the case of Iran and Syria, or a cohesive and eicient ideological leadership, in the case of Hizballah and

At the same time they have developed the skills of tactical pragmatism and covert action at its utmost, manipulating for more than twenty ive years leaders of great powers and letting their adversaries tangle in futile political dialogues and expectations of moderation.

A major cohesive element was the fact that they challenged the same major enemies: the United States as a global and regional power but also as the epitome of Western liberal values; Europe as a democratic bloc; Israel and the Jews; and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, until his removal from power.

However, the series of victories of this alliance during the last three decades is not only the result of the robust relationships and durable cooperation between its four members, but it is, in great measure, the consequence of the U.S., European, and Israeli leaderships’ lack of strategic vision and political courage.

The United States and France (the major European country challenged by the axis) did not inlict any serious damage to Iran and its operational arm, Hizballah, for the long series of terrorist attacks against their citizens, soldiers, and interests. Neither has Syria paid a real price for the direct and indirect support to Iranian and Hizballah anti-Western terrorism. Not only
has Iran paid no price for twenty years of lying about its nuclear program, but the West is still willing to ofer ever-greater incentives, strengthening the Iranian leaders’ sense of self-conidence that they can achieve nuclear military capability.

The West has forced Bashar al-Asad to withdraw the Syrian army from Lebanon, but it has stopped short of endangering his regime at home or curtailing his inluence in Lebanon.

Since 1982, Israel has permitted Syria to support continual Hizballah attacks from the north and Palestinian proxies’ attacks in the heart of its territory. Israeli leaders, who accused Syria during these years as responsible for the terrorist campaigns against the Jewish state, did not have the courage to challenge Damascus. Even during the July-August 2006 war, when Hamas leader Khaled Meshal was running the kidnapping of the Israeli soldier from Damascus, and Syria continued to provide heavy military hardware and ammunition to Hizballah, the Israeli government sent the message that it has no intention to bother Syria.

By giving Hizballah the credit for the disgraceful Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, by permitting its consolidation as a state-within-the-state and the building of a small modern guerrilla-army, the various Israeli governments have preferred tactical political gains at home to real strategic long-term interests. In the last war in Lebanon, Israel has paid a high price not only in human lives and material damage but in its regional standing and its deterrent power versus its enemies.

And finally, Israel, the United States, and the West permitted Hamas, a terrorist organization committed to the destruction of the Jewish state, to take over the government of the Palestinian Authority through democratic elections.

he dangerous destabilizing efect of the Iran-Syria-Hizballah-Hamas alliance on the Middle East and beyond, and the leadership role the Tehran regime plays in inluencing the policy of this coalition according to its own strategic interests, places the prevention of the Iranian nuclear military program as irst priority for the international community.

The United States, the international community, and Israel face a daunting decision: how to prevent it from happening. After twenty years of futile diplomatic dialogue and a year of mild international sanctions, three options remain: severe economic sanctions, a military operation against the Iranian nuclear facilities, or a laissez faire attitude that allows the Iranians to achieve their goal while devising an eicient deterrent strategy for the future.

President Bush said recently that the international community must keep the pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program. To this end, the United States is working with allies to send a consistent message to the Iranians. At the same time, he did not rule out the possible use of force against Iran, but he believes it is still possible to resolve the dispute diplomatically.

From the British perspective, Iran is the single biggest foreign policy challenge of the next few years. If Iran were to acquire nuclear-weapons capability, a WMD arms race in the Middle East could cause irreparable damage. he newly elected French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that Iran represents “the most important problem on the international scene” and that the calls made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for the destruction of Israel are the most profound threat to international peace.

A recent collective study by he Washington Institute for Near East Policy, investigating the challenges posed by deterring a nuclear Iran in the case that diplomacy did not succeed, suggests that deterring Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapons program might prove much more diicult than deterrence during the Cold War because of the nature of the regime in Tehran, the
regional security environment, and the challenges of coalition formation.

Moreover, Iran’s nuclear weapons could be controlled by some of the most radical elements in the regime, and some of these weapons might even ind their way into the hands of terrorists.

The Iranian response to threats of more sanctions and hints of military action are clear and loud. Ahmadinejad said recently that “those who assume that decaying methods such as psychological war, political propaganda and the so-called economic sanctions would work and prevent Iran’s fast drive toward progress are mistaken.” He issued a tough warning to any country considering an attack on Iran.(3)

In case real, painful sanctions are used to try to curb the regime’s resolve or in case of a military operation against its nuclear facilities, Iran has indeed a wide range of options for retaliation at its disposal, as openly suggested by its political and military leaders.

One possible scenario includes an immediate Iranian missile counterattack on Israel and on U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf. Iran possesses up to 500 Shihab ballistic missiles of diferent types, with ranges varying from 300 to 2,000 kilometers and capable of carrying warheads of up to 1,000 kilograms. One of the strongest cards against the United States is Iran’s capacity for wreaking havoc in Iraq and provoking a confrontation between U.S. troops and the Shia majority in Iraq. his option has been already activated, on low ire for the moment, as has been amply documented by the latest data published by U.S. oicials.

The Tehran regime is preparing an army of suicide bombers to be sent mainly to Iraq, on the model of the Basij suicide soldiers used in the Iraq-Iran war. “he World Islamic Organization’s Headquarters for Commemorating the Shahids” claimed that, by March 2006, 53,900 potential suicide ighters had signed up.

Iran can retaliate against energy targets in the Gulf and attack the low of oil through the Strait of Hormuz. Ayatollah Khamenei warned the U.S. that “if the Americans make a wrong move toward Iran, the shipment of energy will deinitely be in danger, and the Americans will not be able to protect energy supplies in the region.” Consequently, oil prices would increase dramatically. The Islamic Revolution’s Guards Corps (IRGC) is relying on an asymmetrical warfare strategy on the model of the tactics employed by Hizballah during the Lebanon war in 2006.

Hizballah will be the main tool to attack Israeli territory with rockets and guerrilla commandos. Iran and Syria have rearmed it with long-range missiles; Nasrallah has boasted that Hizballah has 20,000 rockets. Iran can target Israeli and Jewish targets abroad, as it did in 1992 and 1994 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. As for the Palestinians, Khaled Meshal declared that “if Israel attacks Iran, then Hamas will widen and increase its confrontation of Israelis inside Palestine.”

Iran could stage painful covert terrorist attacks by its intelligence agencies, the Quds Force, and IRGC assets against U.S. and Western interests. Revolutionary Guards theoretician Hassan Abassi threatened that Iran would “endanger American interests worldwide” if the U.S. were to impose sanctions on it. Ahmadinejad “advised the Europeans that [they] are the neighbors of the nations in this region…and if a storm begins [they] may get hurt.”

A U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites could enhance the appeal of extremism in the Muslim world, inside and outside Iran, at the expense of the moderates. It would be perceived by Muslims worldwide as another assault on Islam, as was the case in Iraq and in Lebanon.

The promised retaliation by Iran must be taken very seriously. The Middle East would undoubtedly be more dangerous and unstable, at least in the short term.

But the other crucial question is, in case Iran goes nuclear, how dangerous and unstable would the Middle East be: how much, in any case, would those who potentially are in Tehran’s and its allies’ gun-sights sufer. It is reasonable to consider that the axis would critically enhance its subversion, penetration, and domination of most of the region’s unstable arenas and conlicts.

The potential of radicalization/Islamization of Iraq, at least the Shia Iraq, could quickly materialize and result in a more bloody sectarian war involving the neighboring Sunni countries. his could be a major step in the formation of the dreaded Shia Crescent.

The process of radicalization/Islamization of Lebanon through the good offices of Hizballah would be accelerated.

The process of radicalization/Islamization of Palestine, which began by the takeover of Gaza by Hamas, would also be accelerated, with immediate inluence on the strategies of the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical Islamist groups in Egypt and Jordan.

Iran, with Hizballah and Iraqi Shia radicals’ support, could open a new front in the Gulf countries by inciting the Shia majority in Bahrain and the minorities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, Oman, and the UAE, who live mostly in the oil-rich provinces, to ight actively and violently for equal rights, autonomy, or even self-determination.

Tehran would be tempted to spread its revolutionary message towards the Muslim republics in Central Asia.

The Iranians could use al-Qaeda for their own needs in the Middle East or beyond, and some al-Qaeda operatives could be impressed by nuclear Iran and agree to cooperate.

Last but not least, the hope for a change in the Iranian regime from within could wither for a long time, and those who would dare support reforms and internal dissent in Iran would think twice before challenging the long arm of the Iranian intelligence and terrorist proxies.

As it seems for now, there is no reasonable hope that negotiations or economic sanctions can turn Tehran’s rulers away from the dream of great-power status and Islamic revolution.

Russia could have a crucial role in convincing the ayatollahs of the seriousness of their situation.

However, in light of the growing tension between the United States and Russia on important strategic issues, like the building of the missile defense system in Poland and the radar station in the Czech Republic or the expansion of NATO into the old Eastern Bloc on Russia’s Western border, President Putin has been less willing to cooperate on the Iranian file.

The prevention of the Iranian nuclear project is a suicient major concern for U.S. interests in the Middle East and as a global power to induce the Bush administration to ind a grand strategic compromise with Russia that would permit a common front against Iran and thus considerably enhance the success of the sanctions.

There is the possibility to isolate Tehran by breaking the alliance with Syria, which is key to isolating and disarming Hizballah and reducing the inluence of radical Palestinians on the peace process with Israel. Israel cannot defeat Hizballah if it does not occupy most of Lebanon, and the only way to change the equation in Lebanon is to challenge Syria.

The carrots the European leaders proposed to President Bashar al-Asad have not convinced him to climb onto the moderate Arab bandwagon. The carrots should be perhaps improved, but the stick should be waved higher. The pressure on Syria must mount also on the background of the upcoming presidential elections and the endless series of political assassinations in Lebanon.

Israel should decide on a more forceful strategy versus Syria, on the Turkish example of 1998, and seek U.S. and European support for it. The September 6, 2007, Israeli air raid on Syria, which was intended to hit a specific-nuclear-target, has challenged the immunity of the Damascus regime without provoking a European or Arab outcry.

The raid also showed Iran and the world that if it does act against a clear and present danger, the Muslim world will not erupt.

On December 3, 2007, a U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) was released that judged “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” This NIE, and particularly that key judgment, was quickly highlighted by all major media worldwide without a thorough analysis of the document, which included much contradictory information.

The NIE verified that Iran did in fact have a weapons program and that international sanctions were in fact working. The White House cited this information to show that their suspicions about Tehran’s intentions were warranted and that international sanctions should be enhanced.

Many analysts have dissected and refuted the report’s conclusion. The Director of National Intelligence, Michael McConnell, himself backed away from his agency’s assessment that Iran had halted its nuclear program, saying he wished he had written the unclassiied version of the document in a diferent manner.(4)

Most analysts evaluated that the report would shut of any military option for the Bush administration and would even weaken international support for tougher sanctions against Iran. Yet, it soon became clear that the NIE provoked only momentary confusion; nothing substantial has taken place in order to change the course of Iran’s nuclear crisis.(5)

On March 3, 2008, after nearly eight months of negotiations, the UN Security Council finally adopted Resolution 1803, the third round of sanctions against Iran for refusing to suspend uranium enrichment and heavy-water-related projects.

The U.S. and the European nuclear powers have the duty to protect their citizens, soldiers, and interests and those of their allies in the Middle East, and they must stand firm against the “axis of destabilization” and the apocalyptic plans of the radicals in Tehran.

If the military option will be chosen as the last resort, it is imperative to dissuade the Tehran regime from retaliating as it is planning. Ex-French President Jacques Chirac gave the example when he said that France was prepared to launch a nuclear strike against any country that sponsors a terrorist attack against French interests. “The leaders of states who would use terrorist means against us, as well as those who would envision using…weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would lay themselves open to a firm and fitting response on our part.”(6)


1. Cited from Ehteshami, Anoushiravan and Hinnebusch A. Raymond, Syria and Iran Middle Powers in a Penetrated Regional System (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), p. 1.

2. From an address by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, aired on the Iranian news channel (IRINN) on September 28, 2006.

3. “Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Says Sanctions Will Not Stop Nuclear Progress,” Associated Press, September 22, 2007.

4. Eli Lake, New York Sun, February 6, 2008.

5. See Ali Asghar Kazemi, “A View from Tehran,” in Iran’s nuclear program after the NIE, bitterlemons-international.org, Ed. 4, Vol. 6. January 24, 2008, http://www.bitterlemons-international.org/previous.php?opt=1&id=212.

6. Cited by Molly Moore, “Chirac: Nuclear Response to Terrorism Is Possible,” Washington Post, January 20, 2006.


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