The elephant in the Middle East room is Iran. Stopping the Islamic Republic of Iran from reaching a nuclear capability is the most important issue facing the international community. If we fail to do so, the implication on many issues, from energy to stability in the region to terrorism and to nuclear proliferation, will be profoundly negative and dangerous.
On the other hand, if the U.S. and others succeed in preventing Iran from going nuclear, as President Obama has committed to, then a series of positive developments could flow. Included are a strengthened American image in the region, a tilt away from the Islamic extremists, and possibilities for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
We see this in microcosm when we look at what has been in happening in Gaza.
It is impossible to understand what's going on in Gaza and with Hamas without recognizing Iran's role. It is hard to comprehend Israel's reaction to Hamas without seeing the role of the looming threat to Iran. It is impossible to find a solution in Gaza without taking Iran into account. And it is critical that very soon the world must move its attention from Gaza to Iran itself as the clock toward an Iranian nuclear weapon keeps on ticking.
When Hamas began to take control in Gaza, many took comfort that at least it was a Sunni regime that unlike Hezbollah in Lebanon, would not draw too close to the Shiite Iranians.
It was false comfort. Iran has become the major supplier of weapons, increasingly sophisticated, flowing to Hamas. Iran provides full diplomatic support to Hamas. And Iran works to strengthen the Islamist Hamas against the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas.
The first necessity for the international community is to openly identify and expose Iran's role in building up Hamas. The Palestinian terrorist group has now been able to launch missiles that can reach Tel Aviv and cause great damage simply because of Iran. Iran ships its Fajr-5 and many Grad missiles through Sudan and, in the words of the head of the Republican Guard, Major General Mohammad Ali Ja'afari, "we have given them (Hamas and others in Gaza) the necessary technology for the Fajr-5 and today mass quantities of this missile are being produced."
And make no mistake about it: Iran is determined to up the ante, to increase both the weaponry and training for Hamas that will allow it to become the same level of threat to Israel from the south as Hezbollah is from the north.
Any solution to the threat of Hamas to Israel must provide a way to interdict that flow of arms from Iran. The cease-fire agreement reached through the good offices of the U.S. and Egypt and follow-up negotiations will focus primarily on what role Egypt will play to stop that arms flow. Based on past experience, even with a Mubarak regime that was far friendlier to Israel than the current Morsi government, stopping weaponry will at best be a sporadic business.
And so, inevitably, when it comes to truly reversing the dynamic in Gaza (Israel may have regained some deterrence and some reasonably quiet time, but it didn't change the fundamentals) it is what takes place with regard to the Iranian bomb that could play the pivotal role.
First, as if we need it, the latest conflict in Gaza reminds us of what a priority it is to stop Iran from going nuclear. A resurgent Iran, after obtaining nuclear weapons, would undoubtedly multiply its destructive options manifold. Keep in mind the comments of French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius about the Gaza conflict: "What's new is that now there are long-range arms…and there are Iranian arms. Iranian responsibility is heavy in all of this."
Second, preventing Iran from going nuclear, whether through diplomacy, sanctions or the military option, will embolden more moderate forces in the region to stand up to the extremists. Indeed, the balance of power within the Palestinian camp could shift toward the Palestinian Authority and away from Hamas.
All in all, it would make it less likely that Iran could see itself as the expansionist power arming its terror-prone allies and causing destruction everywhere.
So let's keep things in perspective. Let's encourage any agreement that in the short-term will stop the launching of rockets from Gaza into Israel.
If we truly want to change the dynamic in the long run, however, dealing with the main address -- Tehran -- is the way to go. That's what "keeping your eyes on the prize" means in today's Middle East.