Wednesday, August 16, 2006

War Emboldens Iran Ahead of Nuclear Talks

Neil King Jr., The Wall Street Journal:
The ambiguous conclusion to Israel's latest battle with Hezbollah looks to have weakened Washington's hand, and strengthened Iran's, in the escalating showdown over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

While the recent fighting diverted attention from Iran's nuclear program, the tussle is now returning to the diplomatic forefront. The Bush administration faces several pivotal moments in coming weeks, including a likely push next month to impose sanctions on Tehran if it spurns an Aug. 31 United Nations deadline to suspend uranium-enrichment work.

Hezbollah's ability to withstand a monthlong onslaught -- while inflicting considerable casualties and launching a continuous rocket barrage on Israel -- has dented the U.S. diplomatic effort by weakening its key ally in the region, Israel, while providing at least a symbolic victory to the Shiite Muslim militia and its Iranian sponsors. The administration's strong support of Israel's military campaign in Lebanon has also angered some of Washington's important Arab and European partners, who objected to the widespread destruction of Lebanon's infrastructure. READ MORE

In Israel, prominent critics of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused his government of a long list of failures, buttressing the argument that Hezbollah had emerged the victor from -- or at least not lost -- the 33-day war.

In Iran, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told a massive rally that Hezbollah had "hoisted the banner of victory" over Lebanon. He also used his speech to repeat assertions that Iran won't give in to international demands to alter its nuclear program. "We are fully mastering the nuclear fuel cycle for our peaceful atomic activities," he said. "No one can take it away from us."

Despite such aggressive rhetoric, senior Bush-administration officials say it is too early to assume Hezbollah or Iran will emerge strengthened. If the cease-fire holds and eventually results in the disarmament of Hezbollah, says one administration official, "a big arrow will have been taken from Iran's quiver."

President Bush and his top diplomat, Condoleezza Rice, hope in the weeks ahead to point to Hezbollah's actions against Israel as Exhibit A in arguing that Tehran's growing military power poses a dire threat to the region. "We can only imagine how much more dangerous this conflict would be if Iran had the nuclear weapon it seeks," Mr. Bush said Monday, putting the blame for the fighting on Hezbollah and "Iranian sponsorship" of the organization.

That approach is sure to gain some traction. Arab and European allies were deeply alarmed by Hezbollah's massive missile attacks on Israel, which were seen as further proof of Iran's growing influence across the Middle East. Iran's Shiite leaders are also supporting militias in Iraq as well as the Palestinian territories, unnerving governments in majority Sunni countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. "Through this conflict, the world has a better sense of the foreign-policy challenge that Iran poses for Middle East coexistence and stability," says David Makovsky, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Yet at the same time, the administration's steadfast defense of Israel's open-ended drive into Lebanon has created deep diplomatic fissures that could hurt the U.S. and help Iran. Qatar -- representing the Arab League -- was the only country last month to vote against a U.N. Security Council resolution threatening Iran with sanctions if it doesn't suspend its uranium-enrichment program by Aug. 31. China and Russia, which have been hesitant to back the threat of sanctions on Iran, were also angered by the U.S. refusal to back a quicker cease-fire, U.N. diplomats say.

European officials also worry that the destruction in Lebanon has stirred within the Muslim world still deeper distrust of the U.N. and Western intentions in the Middle East, further complicating diplomacy within the Security Council. "Iran will definitely try to capitalize on the very polarized public opinion to portray whatever we do as the work of the West against the Islamic world," said one French diplomat.

At the start of the Israel-Hezbollah fighting, Mr. Bush and his aides said it was crucial that Israel's military eliminate the "root cause" of the conflict -- which it defined as Hezbollah -- and further isolate Syria and Iran. But it remains to be seen whether either objective was achieved.

Hezbollah has emerged from the wreckage as a battered victor in the eyes of many, leaving Iran with a potent tool to respond to any attacks on its nuclear programs. It also is an open question whether the U.N. cease-fire agreement will lead to the militia's disarmament.

"Hezbollah did what no Arab government ever has: They fought Israel and didn't lose," says Kenneth Pollack, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Still, senior Bush administration officials say they are confident that the Security Council will move to back at least limited sanctions against Iran early next month if Tehran refuses to suspend its enrichment work. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns says "there has been no indication at all that the will to isolate Iran has weakened among our allies." The war, he says, "has only heightened concerns over Iran and strengthened our hand."

Write to Neil King Jr. at