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AIPAC concerns aside, Israelis say Iran is a waning hegemon

Israeli leaders see Iran in danger of losing its dominance in the region as Syria, the linchpin of Tehran's regional alliance, falters. But a nuclear weapon could help it regain lost ground.

By Correspondent / March 5, 2012

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad jokes with journalists as he waits to meet with India's Minister for New and Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah (not pictured) in Tehran March 4.

Caren Firouz/REUTERS

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Tel Aviv

As upheaval spread throughout the Arab world last year, Israeli leaders warned that the instability might be exploited by Iran to expand its influence throughout the Middle East.

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But as President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet in Washington today to discuss the Iran nuclear threat, many in Israel argue that Tehran may end up one of the biggest losers of the upheaval.

Embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a key Iranian ally who faces a year-long uprising against his regime, has long been the linchpin of a regional alliance led by Tehran and including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Both groups, with armed militants on Israel's borders, are seen as proxies that Iran could use to retaliate against an Israeli strike on its nuclear program.

If the uprising succeeds in toppling Mr. Assad, the so-called "axis of resistance" would suffer a blow because the removal of a friendly regime in Damascus could end the weapons-supply link from Iran to Lebanon.

The axis of resistance already received a lesser blow in recent weeks, when Hamas abandoned its long-time patron Mr. Assad and relocated its headquarters from Syria to Egypt and Qatar, two Sunni states with stronger ties to the West.

"[The Arab Spring] changes the trend from an ascendency of Iran and its allies and its cronies to the decline and fall," says an Israeli diplomat who was not authorized to speak about the topic on the record. "Everybody was talking about the Shiite crescent. The Shiites are still there, but the Iranian dominance is flailing. They still wield influence over Iraqi Shiites, and Hezbollah, but there’s going to be a missing link if Assad falls."

To be sure, even though Iran's influence appears to be waning, Israelis worry that if Iran got a nuclear weapon, it could quickly regain that lost ground and be better able to project its power through the region.

That fear has added urgency to Mr. Netanyahu's efforts today in Washington to persuade Mr. Obama to define clear "red lines" for Iran's nuclear program.

Also tempering Israeli optimism is the fear that a power vacuum in Syria could destabilize the country and perhaps neighboring Lebanon as well in the near future. Israeli military and intelligence officers say they are extremely concerned that if central authority in Syria were to devolve, Hezbollah might transfer some of Syria’s non-conventional arsenal – including chemical weapons – into Lebanon.

'Syria is the key to Iranian power'

In the early months of the Syrian revolt, Israeli officials remained tight-lipped, fearing rising instability on the normally calm border with the Golan Heights and facing uncertainty about who would replace Assad. Concern that Israeli calls for Assad’s ouster would undermine the Syrian opposition also deterred Israelis from speaking up.

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