In Mideast tumult, Iran's clout rises

Hizbullah has embroiled Iran's nemesis Israel in a bloody conflict - and diverted attention from Iran's nuclear program.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Syria and across southern Lebanon, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad smiles broadly from posters that feature the fiery leader alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hizbullah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

To judge by Iran's expanding influence across an increasingly turbulent Middle East, Mr. Ahmadinejad has good reason to smile. Not only are the political winds blowing his way in former arch-enemy Iraq, but now the war touched off by Hizbullah, the Iranian- created and supplied organization in Lebanon, has embroiled Iran's nemesis Israel in a bloody conflict – and diverted attention from Iran's nuclear program.

Topping it all off, Iran specialists say, the diminutive but rhetorically explosive leader sees Iran's existential enemy, the United States, so weakened by its Iraq involvement that he and the regime's powerful mullahs are feeling less constrained by fears of America.

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And the troubling reality, these experts add, is that the regime's analysis is more accurate than fanciful.

"Four years after being labeled part of the axis of evil, Iran has a sense of being on the rise while the US and the West are increasingly weak, and they have reason to think that way," says Lawrence Haas, an Iran specialist at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

Iran's tactics may backfire, these analysts add. The United Nations Security Council could vote as early as Monday on a resolution threatening sanctions if it doesn't suspend enriching uranium by Aug. 31.

Still, the list of factors contributing to Iran's growing sense of power is long – from the removal of two neighboring enemies in Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rise of friendly Shiite forces in Iraq, the expansion of radical Islamism, and drawn-out international diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program.

Iran is thought to funnel about $200 million a year to its pet causes in the Islamist movement, including an estimated $100 million going to Hizbullah. That investment has spread Iran's influence westward and raised fears in Lebanon's Sunni neighbors of a rising radical Shiite crescent. It also provides Iran with a footprint in the heart of the Middle East and – with its lesser investment in Hamas – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The Iranians see Hizbullah as a strategic asset," says Bahman Baktiari, an Iran expert at the University of Maine in Orono. "It's the only way Iran can score points against Israel."

What Tehran seeks to accomplish with its regional rise can be reduced to two words, many analysts agree: influence and deterrence.

"Ahmadinejad especially is saying: 'We are a player to be reckoned with,' " says Alex Vatanka, an Iran specialist at Jane's Information Group in Alexandria, Va. "Above everything else, he wants to maximize Iran's position in the Muslim world."

At the same time, Iran is seeking to influence US and international actions towards it by suggesting either the benefits it can bestow – or the trouble it can unleash. "A lot of what they are doing can be seen as an effort to build deterrence vis-à-vis the US," says Mr. Vatanka.

Debate rages among Iran analysts over just what role Tehran played in sparking war between Israel and Hizbullah: Did it give the order, or did it simply supply the arms, training, and moral support to make Hizbullah's tenacious fight possible?

"It's inconceivable to me that Iran did not at the very least give a green light, and at most provoke the conflict," says Mr. Haas.

Others are not so categorical. "It would be exaggeration to say that someone in Tehran pushes a button and Hizbullah jumps," says Vatanka. "Hizbullah doesn't want the relationship to be that way."

Where there is growing consensus is around the idea that, no matter what role it played, Tehran may have overplayed its hand: that a continuing war could be decimating Hizbullah beyond the point Iran anticipated, and that a longer conflict may not help it at home or abroad. That could be one explanation for Ahmadinejad's call last week for a cease-fire in the conflict.

"He probably wants to go back to the status quo ante," says Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "That would allow Hizbullah to say, 'We [succeeded] again.' "

The Iranian president also said Israel had pressed a self-destruct button by invading Lebanon, according to Iran's official news agency. Four major Muslim countries joined Iran's call for a cease-fire.

Mr. Baktiari says a drawn-out war would expose the Iranian regime to heightened public dissatisfaction with foreign projects like Hizbullah, and could reverse the initial diplomatic gains it reaped from the conflict. "The picture is not as rosy for Tehran as it may seem," he says.

One way of seeing the situation is that Iran benefits from turmoil – but not too much turmoil. For example, in Iraq: Turmoil there has allowed Iranian intelligence agents to move in and build influence, while the sectarian divide has fed the cause of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iranian protégé. But Baktiari notes that a spread of sectarianism – or a fragmented Iraq – would hardly suit Iran, which has its own Sunni and Kurdish minorities.

Similarly, Iran is not unhappy to see the US bogged down in Afghanistan – but it would not want to see a return of the Taliban.

Perhaps most important, the Iranian regime faces troubles at home – and knows its foreign adventures are not popular.

"The leaders are completely aware that the problems of the country are economic," says Mahmood Monshipouri, a political scientist at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "And there is a good reason there was never any talk [in the last elections] of establishing an Iranian hegemony in the region," he adds. "The Iranian people are not interested."

What they are interested in, he adds, is normalization with the US. That is why the country's reformists and conservatives are in a fight over who can open a dialogue with the US, according to Mr. Monshipouri, who is from Iran. And running through both currents is the idea of making Iran indispensible: to the stabilization of Iraq, and to resolving conflict in the Middle East.

Iran poses a dilemma for the US, Haas adds. It must do better at explaining the threat posed by the regime in Tehran – and convince the world to begin targeting it, while doing a better job of reaching out to the Iranian people.

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