Thursday, July 20, 2006

Iran Seeks to Become Major Mideast Player

Brian Murphy, The Guardian:
Iranian officials often say that places with the greatest troubles offer their country the best opportunities.

Iranian influence in Iraq has surged since the U.S.-led invasion three years ago. Its reach into Afghanistan continues to grow.

And now, the war in Lebanon could make Iran an even more important player in the Islamic world even as its militant Shiite Arab client, Hezbollah, gets pounded by Israel.

``Iran sees itself more than just the moral father of Hezbollah. Iran seeks to become a major force across the region as a counterbalance to America and Israel,'' said Ahmad Bakhshaiesh, a professor of political studies at Tehran's Azadi University.

``Lebanon is part of this plan,'' he said.

Already, officials and experts say that for any cease-fire or broader peace package to succeed, Iran's deep ties with Hezbollah must be taken into account.

Hezbollah could emerge from the battles severely weakened militarily, but with its reputation enhanced in the Muslim world for resisting Israel. That in turn would give Iran, a non-Arab country, an even higher profile in the Arab world - a prospect that frightens the Jewish state.

Iran ``is the main perpetrator, harborer, financier and initiator of terror and of which the Hezbollah... is only the proxy,'' Israel's U.N. Ambassador, Dan Gillerman, told reporters Thursday.

Iranian leaders have never fully disclosed the levels of financial and military help funneled to Hezbollah strongholds since its founding in the early 1980s. Iran also denies Israeli claims that it has dispatched Revolutionary Guard advisers and directly supplied longer-range missiles that have reached deep into Israel.

But many analysts in Iran and abroad believe Tehran remains firmly at the helm of all important Hezbollah decisions, including the cross-border attack last week that touched off the worst fighting in 24 years.

``Hezbollah simply would not have taken the brazen steps to create murder and mayhem without the assent - if not the actual steering - from Tehran,'' said Lawrence Haas, an expert on Hezbollah at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute in Washington.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki postponed a trip to India to remain in the region. A hard-line parliament member, Sayeed Abu Talib, predicted Iran could be positioning itself for eventual truce talks.

``There can be no negotiations without Iran,'' he said. ``Otherwise, any deal is doomed to failure.'' READ MORE

Many believe Iran supported the raid that captured the Israeli soldiers because it wanted to reassert Hezbollah's profile. Headlines and support had been flowing to the Palestinian group Hamas - the target of punishing Israeli raids and attacks in retaliation for an ambush last month from the Gaza Strip that took one soldier captive.

Others - including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert - say Iran could be seeking to deflect international attention from its nuclear program. On Thursday, Iran announced it would reply Aug. 22 to a set of Western incentives aimed at suspending its uranium enrichment work.

``The crisis has caused the world to forget Iran's nuclear activities at least for the time being,'' said Tehran-based political analyst Saeed Leilaz.

Lebanese Hezbollah officials in Tehran refused requests for interviews. A Hezbollah aid coordinator in Iran, Ahmad Doulatabadi, said only: ``Hezbollah has 70 million members in Iran. Every Iranian is a supporter.'' He declined to discuss whether Iran was sending missiles or other military support.

Hezbollah, or Party of God, was formed in the early 1980s in Lebanon after Israel's invasion to try to root out militant factions. Hezbollah's Shiite Muslim founders took inspiration from Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution and pledged allegiance to its leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Iran - the largest Shiite nation - became a generous benefactor, sending a huge flow of money, arms and aid. Experts estimate Iran's assistance at between $10 million to $20 million a month.

Hezbollah maintains an office on Tehran's premier boulevard. Its fist-and-weapon emblem is modeled after the symbol of the Revolutionary Guard, the military pillar of Iran's Islamic Revolution.

During its early years, Hezbollah became synonymous with suicide attacks, led by a 1983 blast at Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 Americans. An almost simultaneous bombing killed 58 French peacekeepers. Later, Hezbollah battled Israel in southern Lebanon before the Israeli withdrawal in 2000. The State Department considers Hezbollah a terrorist group and lists Iran and Syria as state sponsors of terrorism.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has enhanced its image by funding schools, clinic and charities. It also had entered politics, and holds 11 seats in the Lebanese parliament and two Cabinet posts.

But the Iranian connection has remained tight. Posters of Khomeini and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are common across Hezbollah offices and among supporters. Revolutionary Guard liaisons have been in constant contact in Lebanon, although Iran never publicly admitted their presence.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - a former Revolutionary Guard commander - reportedly met in Syria in January with Imad Mughniyeh, a senior Hezbollah intelligence official. Mughniyeh is among the fugitives indicted in the United States for the 1985 hijacking of a TWA airliner in which a U.S. Navy SEAL was killed.

Iranian officials also find the Lebanon crisis has political benefits at home, uniting the people against a common enemy, Israel. Newspapers and television have carried bank account numbers for Lebanese aid groups. Hard-line commentators have expressed pride in Hezbollah's defiance.

At a rally in Tehran on Tuesday, members of the Revolutionary Guard stood under the yellow banners of Hezbollah. A 21-year-old student, Samad Doustmohammadian, wore a white shroud to symbolize his willingness to become a Hezbollah suicide bomber.

The Iranian-based wing of Hezbollah said up to 2,000 fighters are ready to travel to Lebanon if asked by Khamenei, said the Iranian Hezbollah's spokesman, Mojtaba Bigdeli.

``We think that this is the beginning of the third world war and we are ready for this,'' he said.