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Terrorism & Security

US officials: Iran helping Syria's Assad put down protests

The US has long been concerned about Iranian influence in Syria, which serves as the main conduit through which Iran sends weapons to Hezbollah and Hamas. Now, that influence could grow.

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US officials' decision to disclose that they have been tracking Iran's efforts in Syria was made partially to reassure its Arab allies and Israel, who worry that the US is supporting the popular uprisings without thinking about the political consequences. The power vacuums created by the fall of strongmen could give Iran a tremendous opportunity to expand its influence, the Journal reported.

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The Christian Science Monitor reports that if Assad's regime falls, Iran will work to install a leader even more hostile to Israel and the West, Saudi Arabia will try to sever all ties between Iran and Syria and bring Syria back into the mainstream Arab community, and the US and Israel will try to prevent the country's leadership from falling into the hands of an Islamist group or anyone hostile to Israel.

The US is also concerned that overt Iranian assistance to Assad could escalate the Shiite-Sunni tensions in the region.

US ally Saudi Arabia is led by a Sunni monarchy that the US sees as a stabilizing force in the region, suppressing Islamist and terrorist groups. Shiite Iran is looking for ways to project its influence further and undermine Sunni dominance in the region.

Already, Iran has taken a much greater role in Lebanon since Syria withdrew its military presence in 2005, helping Hezbollah become the dominant political force in Lebanon – a development of great concern to neighboring Israel.

The US is also keeping an eye on Iranian involvement in Bahrain, where the majority Shiite population has long been suppressed by the Sunni ruling elite. Saudi Arabia has already sent 1,000 troops to bolster Bahrain's Sunni monarchy. Intercepted communications show that Tehran is looking for ways to assist Shiites in Bahrain, the Journal reported.

But despite concerns about a Saudi-Iran proxy war playing out in Bahrain, such a battle is unlikely since Bahraini protesters' demands focus on human rights and democratic reforms – not sectarian issues, the Monitor reported.

“The problems are discrimination, denial of human and political rights, arbitrary authority which does not derive from the consent of the governed, and diversion of resources to a tiny minority on a gigantic scale,” Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University, told the Monitor. “The same problems exist in nearly all the Arab countries, with local variations of course. Of course Iran is happy to fish in troubled waters, but that has nothing to do with why they are troubled.”

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