Iran pumps iron in the Middle East

Through its terrorist proxy Hezbollah, Iran builds up its Shiite influence in the region.

In the great Shiite-Sunni Muslim clash that cleaves the Middle East, score one for Iran's radical Shiite theocracy. Through its militant proxy, Hezbollah, Iran has shown it can be the real power in Lebanon. And it took only a few days to do it.

Last week, Shiite Hezbollah militants in Lebanon attacked supporters of the weak, pro-Western democracy, which grew out of the "Cedar Revolution" of 2005. The government is led by a Sunni, Prime Minister Fuad Saniora.

Hezbollah routed its opponents, killing several dozen people and triggering an "oh no" fear that Lebanon was entering a sectarian civil war as potentially devastating as the one from 1975-90.

But civil war, apparently, is not what Hezbollah had in mind. Just an in-and-out coup to show its military superiority (courtesy of Iran and Syria) after the government declared Hezbollah's private telecommunications network illegal, and sacked a Hezbollah-friendly airport official. With its prowess, Hezbollah can now blackmail the government into giving it more political power.

The fighting has deeply shaken the Middle East's Sunni Arab governments, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which see it as Iran on the march in the region.

And it's true. Since Iran's great enemy, Saddam Hussein, was toppled by the US invasion of Iraq, Tehran has had more maneuvering room to spread its special brand of religious fervor. Turning out a dismal economic performance at home, Tehran props itself up by challenging enemies abroad: Sunni Arabs, Israel, and the West.

Iran has caused endless trouble for the US in Iraq by arming and supporting Shiite militants there, and it is stepping up aid to the Taliban in Afghanistan.

And then there is Iran's other terrorist and anti-Israel proxy, Hamas, in Gaza. The last seven years have seen "a very significant increase in the amount of assistance that Iran is giving to Hamas," said Elliott Abrams, a national security adviser to President Bush, who is traveling in the Middle East this week.

Now Iran's pumping iron in Lebanon, where it can flex its Shiite muscles in front of the country's other sectarian groups – and in front of Israel, should it decide to take out Tehran's nuclear program as it did Syria's and Iraq's.

On the other side of the Middle East divide stand the Sunni Arab countries, the US and its democracy interests, and, of course, Israel. Yet their leverage in Lebanon is limited.

Hezbollah is well armed and highly disciplined. No one is able or willing to disarm it. Not the Lebanese Army. Not Israel, which failed to knock out Hezbollah in 2006. Not UN peacekeeping forces. And not the US, which is bogged down in Iraq and remembers well the 1983 bombing of its Marine barracks in Beirut. Indeed, it was the Lebanese government's attempt to weaken Hezbollah's military capabilities that sparked last week's attack in the first place.

Meanwhile, the alarmed Arab League, which dispatched negotiators to Lebanon this week, lacks credibility. How can it promote democratic power-sharing in Lebanon when its leaders keep a firm grip on their own countries?

Yet more support is needed for Lebanon's democracy, whether it is more development aid or more training and arms for the Lebanese Army. Violent Islamists cannot lord it over the Middle East.

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