Ascendant Players on the Regional Chessboard

Discussions this week on the crises in the Palestinian Authority and in Lebanon revealed emerging centers of influence in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Ali Larijani, the secretary general of Iran's Supreme National Security Council (SNSC), was rather busy this past week. On Sunday he arrived in Damascus for an "unexpected" trip, involving an appearance at a regional conference, to talk with Syrian president Bashar Assad about Iraq and about the effort to bring an end to the political crisis in Lebanon. In fact, his trip was indeed expected. Larijani came to Damascus just as Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Hamas political chief Khaled Meshal were preparing for their meeting, which at one point seemed likely to be aborted. Larijani departed the Syrian capital one day before the start of the violent general strike staged by the opposition in Lebanon.

Larijani flitted from one arena to another with the shrewdness of a seasoned chess player. On Sunday night, he called Meshal and Abbas to congratulate them for having met, since "it's important to display a common front against the Zionist enemy." On Monday he sent a letter to the Saudi King Abdullah, in which he explained that if Riyadh wants to solve the crisis in Lebanon, it ought to persuade Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to give up his campaign to have an international court investigate the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri.

Twenty-four hours later, Saudi Arabia received proof of why it ought to take Iran's advice: The accounts of assaults on demonstrators by Lebanese soldiers and police, and of clashes between supporters of Hezbollah, Amal and former general Michel Aoun on the one hand, and government supporters on the other, raised the anxiety level over the potential for another civil war in Lebanon. King Abdullah called Siniora to see what was happening and afterward asked Larijani to rein in Hezbollah.

On Tuesday evening, these talks brought about a turning point: Hezbollah announced that it would suspend the demonstrations and general strike, and the blocking of the main roads.

"[Hassan] Nasrallah had no reason to stop the demonstrations," explains one Lebanese commentator. "They were supposed to continue until Friday at least, the day when the conference of donor countries to Lebanon, being held in Paris, was due to end. No question about it - if it weren't for the order from Iran, with which Saudi Arabia agreed, we would have seen more bloodshed in Lebanon."

Larijani, who studied Western philosophy, was the culture minister in the government of Hashemi Rafsanjani and the chief of Iran's radio and television authority, can feel gratified. As the person responsible for his country's nuclear policy, he can be pleased that his country has, so far, managed to withstand international pressure over its nuclear program without sustaining too much damage. As for the crisis in Lebanon, he believes that he'll be able to get Saudi Arabia to convince the Beirut government to forgo its demand for an investigation into the Hariri assassination, thereby sparing Syria much embarrassment should a link be found between its leaders and the killing. Now Larijani is bringing Iran closer to wielding an influence over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

About a year and a half ago, Larijani ran for his country's presidency and won only about 5 percent of the vote. He may try his luck again in the next election, thus it's important for him to do well in his current post and to win the support of Iran's spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei.

Reaping benefits

The events in Lebanon and the Palestinian arena are bolstering the standing of Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Syria, too, is reaping the benefits. For example, when it became apparent that certain disagreements were holding up the Abbas-Meshal summit, Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shallah, who was involved in the contacts, asked the Syrian foreign minister, Walid Mualem, to exert pressure on the two to meet.

"I explained to Mualem that it was very important that there be a meeting, in order to relieve the tension between the parties and to issue a positive position statement that would make it possible to continue the dialogue," Shallah told the Al-Hayat newspaper.

After Shallah's appeal, Mualem didn't have to try too hard. From the outset, Syria invited Abbas to Damascus with the aim of ensuring that he reach an accord with Hamas on the establishment of a unity government in the Palestinian Authority - or at least to ensure that it, too, and not only Egypt or Saudi Arabia, would exert an influence over a regional conflict from which it had long been excluded. In the Al-Hayat interview, Shallah noted that his appeal to Mualem produced immediate results: Syrian Vice President Farouk Shara phoned Abbas and Meshal and asked them not to leave Damascus without meeting. A source in Hamas says: "It was understood from his words that this was more about showing respect to the host than an attempt to find a solution to the problem. Shara and Mualem explained that it would not look right for two 'Palestinian brothers' who met in an Arab state to leave without a handshake between them. The ceremony was more important than the content."

Of course, Syria did not intend to let slip the opportunity to garner credit for a Palestinian summit, particularly at a time when it is busy trying to strengthen its standing. The report in Haaretz about contacts between Israelis and Syrians regarding a resumption of peace negotiations, and especially the claim that Israel rejected the offer, certainly didn't hurt Damascus either. In addition, the visit to Damascus last week by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, along with the trip by Abbas, helped boost Damascus' image as a vital regional player and not as a "gang state" that's aiding the insurgents in Iraq. The understanding that Syria can influence the stability of the Lebanese government, or to "calm down" Hezbollah at least, gives it added heft when it comes to inter-Arab relations.

However, crisis management is not just Syria's show. While Saudi Arabia is seeing to the well-being of the Lebanese government and the Sunni minority in Iraq, and trying to promote Israeli-Palestinian contacts at Fatah's behest, Iran has carved out an opposite niche: There is no longer any doubt about Tehran's influence on the Iraqi government and over a significant part of the country's Shi'ite population; it is nurturing Hezbollah, the Siniora government's most prominent rival; and in the Palestinian arena, it is providing financial aid to Hamas and there are excellent ties between its ambassador in Syria and the Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders who reside in that country.

Almost like twins

An Egyptian official says that if a responsible Israeli leader who is ready to negotiate with the Palestinians does not emerge soon, the next available partner might not be Hamas or Abbas, but Damascus and Tehran. What he meant was that when countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia aren't being heeded, it will be easy for Meshal and Shallah to make Damascus, rather than Cairo, the center for handling negotiations.

The contacts that took place Damascus at the end of the week seem to confirm that the above-mentioned forecast is coming true. In the television broadcasts of the press conferences there, it was sometimes hard to tell who was who: Shallah, from Islamic Jihad, and Meshal, from Hamas, almost looked like twins. Both have neatly trimmed beards, are about the same age (Shallah is 48 and Meshal is 50) and speak in a calm technocratic tone rather than with the fiery rhetoric of a religious preacher. While their backgrounds are quite different - Shallah was born in Gaza and received a higher education in the United States and Britain, while Meshal was born near Ramallah, studied in Kuwait and rarely traveled abroad - their political positions appear to be growing ever closer.

About a year ago, one would have had a hard time believing that the Islamic Jihad leader who was opposed to the elections for the Palestinian parliament and accused Hamas of wanting to "betray its principles" and to embrace the Oslo Accords would end up working to arrange an Abbas-Meshal meeting. And an odd meeting it was, at which Abbas looked at Meshal and cited agreements that have won the blessing of Syria and Iran.

A senior official in the court of Jordan's King Abdullah believes that "a domino effect is beginning to emerge among those who can exercise a veto and are not necessarily interested in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather in maintaining the political boost that it gives them. Islamic Jihad has a veto over Hamas decisions; Hamas can impose a veto on PA decisions; Damascus also holds a veto, albeit a partial one, over Hamas' conduct; and meanwhile Iran seeks to hold a vital position in the balance of powers created by the war in Iraq. This is a strategic game in which Abbas, Shallah and Meshal are only pawns. I'm no longer certain that they have the ability to make decisions independently."

The Jordanian official's analysis is quite similar to that being expressed by Israeli intelligence personnel, who talk about axes, coalitions and blocs of influence rather than assuming that the strength of the Palestinian government depends on its ability to provide residents of the territories with reasonable living conditions. Hence, for as long as there is an economic siege on the territories and Israel does not cooperate with the PA government and its president, the moves on the Palestinian chessboard will be made from afar by Meshal, Shallah, Syria and Iran.