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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.

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"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.

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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.