Rising tension between the West and Iran is coinciding with the emergence of a loose anti-Western alliance - Israel now dubs it an "axis of terror" - spanning the Middle East, presenting a new challenge to the US's regional ambitions.
Centered on Iran, this alignment has hardened in recent months, analysts say, with Tehran shoring up old alliances and strengthening ties with countries (Syria and Iraq) and with groups (Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad) that share its hostility toward Israel and the US.
"The alliance that is emerging in this part of the world is a creation of Iran," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "It wants to bolster its position by allying itself with countries or groups that can temporarily enhance its regional role and influence."
On Tuesday, Israel's UN envoy Dan Gillerman dubbed this alliance the "new axis of terror" following a suicide bombing claimed by the Iranian-funded Islamic Jihad in Tel Aviv the previous day that killed nine Israelis.
"A dark cloud is looming above our region, and it is metastasizing as a result of the statements and actions by leaders of Iran, Syria, and the newly elected government of the Palestinian Authority," Mr. Gillerman said.
The alliance, which is ad hoc and tactical rather than a formalized strategic pact, includes Syria and groups such as Lebanon's Hizbullah, the Iran-backed militant Shiite organization, radical Palestinian organizations such as Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command as well as some Iraqi allies.
So far the strategy appears to be working in their favor. Hizbullah has become one of the most influential players in Lebanon and looks set to retain its military wing for the foreseeable future.
Iran has rarely appeared more resolute, boasting of its success in uranium enrichment and expressing near daily defiance toward the US. Damascus is gaining confidence with a slackening of international pressure lately amid concerns that a collapse of Syria's Baathist regime could trigger Iraq-style instability.
"The Syrians are very supportive of Iran and very supportive of Hamas and Hizbullah," says Mr. Moubayed. "Almost everybody in Syria is praising [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad's alliance with Iran as a very smart move. Many are saying that the alliance with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad was not political suicide after all."
Iran is the driving force behind the alliance, its strategic position in the region enhanced by the US-led effort to oust Tehran's Taliban enemy in Afghanistan to the east and its Baathist foe in Iraq to the west.
Over the weekend, Iran hosted a three-day conference in support of the Palestinians, pledging $50 million to the newly elected Hamas government and reaffirming its ties to other rejectionist Palestinian groups.
"This is an anti-America alliance," says Joshua Landis, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma and author of Syriacomment.com, who spent 2005 living in Damascus. "My guess is that the US will end up in a weaker position than it started. The war on terror has alienated the Muslim countries who now believe that America is the big bad ogre and specter of imperialism."
A year ago, Syria's strategic position looked grim, having been forced to disengage from neighboring Lebanon, ending 15 years of domination. Hizbullah also was feeling the squeeze amid the departure of its Syrian protector and a growing clamor for its disarmament from the party's Lebanese opponents.
But the election in August of the confrontational Mr. Ahmadinejad as president of Iran reinvigorated the long-standing relationship between Tehran and Damascus. Syria is the geostrategic linchpin connecting Tehran to its Lebanese protégé, Hizbullah, and was also regarded by Iran as the weak link in the chain, one that required buttressing.
A newly emboldened Syria began to display greater defiance against international pressure. In November, Mr. Assad asserted in a speech that "the region [faces] two choices: either resistance and steadfastness or chaos. There is no third choice.
"If they believe that they [the West] can blackmail Syria, we tell them they got the wrong address," he said.
A series of Middle East elections also bolstered the emerging alliance. In late December, Shiite factions close to Tehran dominated the Iraqi elections. The following month, Hamas triumphed in the Palestinian elections, granting Iran greater leverage in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.
In mid-January, Assad hosted a summit in Damascus with Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president's first state visit. Also attending were the leaders of Hizbullah and several anti-Israel Palestinian groups in what analysts regarded as an affirmation of the anti-Western axis.
"The meeting between Ahmadinejad and Assad," commented Sateh Noureddine of Lebanon's As Safir newspaper at the time, "did not come as a sign of defeat, but rather as a joint warning to the world. A warning that the alliance between the two neighbors is on its way to becoming stronger."
The alliance includes the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, who in visits to Tehran and Damascus in January and February vowed to come to the defense "by all possible means" of Iran and Syria if attacked by the US.
There is a commercial dimension, too. In February, Iran and Syria inked sweeping economic and trade agreements including one establishing gas, oil, railroad, and electrical links between Syria and Iran via Iraq. Both countries are looking to the emerging economic powerhouses of Asia to build new trade ties as an alternative to Europe and the West.
"Syria has been signing oil and gas contracts with India, China, and Russia," says Mr. Landis, the Syria expert. "Syria and Iran are thinking they can build Iraq into their northern tier, building gas and oil pipelines across the region."