Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Syria, Iran Comfortably Watch From the Sidelines

Paula Margulies, The Jerusalem Post:
Iran may not want to get very involved in this round of fighting and may leave Hizbullah to fend for itself - willing to sacrifice some of its interests in Lebanon at this stage to make headway in its real objective of obtaining nuclear weapons, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland told Israel Radio on Tuesday.

Iran's parliament speaker warned Tuesday that no part of Israel is safe during Hizbullah's battle with Lebanon - a statement made despite Iran's claim that it is not aiding the guerrillas in their fight.

Speaking to thousands of anti-Israel demonstrators in Palestine Square, Speaker Gholam Ali Haddad Adel told Israelis, "The towns you have built in northern Palestine [Israel] are within the range of the brave Lebanese children. No part of Israel will be safe."

Haddad Adel is not among the most influential officials in Iran. Nevertheless, his comments call into question the Teheran government's official position that it is not involved in the conflict between Israel and Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Iran and its ally Syria are the principal backers of Hizbullah. On Monday, Israeli military officials said their planes had destroyed a long-range missile in Lebanon, named Zelzal, which Hizbullah had received from Iran.

This much is clear: Syria and Iran may have a hand in Hizbullah's attacks, but they are quite happy watching events unfold from the sidelines - together.

"Iran is the only ally Syria has right now," said Eyal Zisser, senior researcher at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "They have a close and intimate relationship."

If Hizbullah attempts to draw Damascus into the fray, can we expect Teheran to jump in as well?

Not a chance, analysts say. READ MORE

Syria has no interest in sharing Lebanon's fate, and Iran has too much to risk.

Ephraim Kam, senior researcher at Tel Aviv's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said that "Up until now, Syria has been trying not to get involved - the two sides are playing a game."

However, according to Mark Heller, also of the Jaffee Center, "There may be some concern on Israel's part that Hizbullah is trying to drag Syria into the game - and Syria is definitely concerned."

"Syria could possibly be forced into it," says David Menashri, the head of Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University, "whether they are willing or unwilling."

Assuming that Israel has no interest in opening up a third front, what other factors could influence whether or not the crisis expands? Is Iran pressing for escalation?

Experts agree that Teheran is gleeful over the conflict - which averts international attention from its nuclear aspirations.

"Iran has openly admitted to supporting Hizbullah - ideologically, politically, financially and possibly militarily," said Menashri.

Israel and the US have accused Iran of supplying Hizbullah with soldiers who assisted in the attack against the Israeli warship Hanit. The Iranian embassy has denied the charges.

On Monday, the commander-in-chief of Iran's Revolutionary Guards said Israel could end its conflict with Hizbullah by agreeing to a prisoner exchange. The Revolutionary Guards - who fought Israel in south Lebanon in the 1980s - are among Hizbullah's closest allies.

According to Menashri, the timing of Hizbullah's July 12 attack on Israel leaves no room for doubt - Teheran was involved in the attacks.

July 12, he said, was the day that Iran was supposed to address its uranium enrichment program or face sanctions from the West.

"On July 11, Iran declined to address the West's demands, and the issue was returned to the UN Security Council." Iranian foreign policy chief Ali Larijani went home through Damascus, and the kidnapping happened the following day.

However, Menashri believes that, like Damascus, Iran is not interested in entering the fray.

"They are interested in escalation," he said, "but to a degree. It is in their interest to sit in Teheran and have Hizbullah fight for them."

According to Heller, Iran has been encouraging Syria to get more involved, but Damascus has demurred.

"There are reports," he said, "that the Syrians said no to Iranian offers of help because they don't want to be attacked by Israel."

Heller added that Syria and Iran understand that "If they got into trouble, no one would come to their aid."

Bound together by unpopularity and hateful ideology, the two countries may continue to play remote-control warfare from the sidelines - but they are wary, analysts say, of entering the battlefield.

Also Monday, Iran's foreign minister said he thought a cease-fire was feasible - in another sign that Iran may have a behind-the-scenes role in the fighting.

In his speech, Haddad Adel praised Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, calling him a "brave lion" and said the Palestinians and Lebanese had every right to fight Israel because Israel has hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinians in its prisons. He also warned that there would be no peace until the US stopped supporting Israel.

Addressing Washington, he said, "Either cut your support for Israel, or don't expect peace and compromise with the world." The crowd responded with chants of "Death to Israel!"

AP contributed to this report.