Thursday, January 27, 2011

Iran's Allies Gain Clout and Possible Softer Edges

by Brian Murphy

From the Afghan badlands to the Mediterranean, evidence of Iran's reach is easy to spot: a mix of friend and foe for Kabul leaders, a power broker in Iraq, deep alliances with Syria and a big brother to Lebanon's Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza.

Tehran's proxy portfolio suddenly has a bit more aura after Hezbollah's political gambit - bringing down a pro-Western government in Lebanon and moving into position to pick its successor.

To those keeping score, it would appear that Iran is winning some important points around the Middle East at the expense of Washington and its allies.

But such gains have potential built-in costs, experts say. With Iran's extended family increasingly joining the ranks of power - first in Gaza, then Iraq and now Lebanon - there also comes pressure to moderate and make other compromises often required from those in charge.

It eventually could bring some uncomfortable contrasts for Tehran - with its partners in the region embracing more flexible policies and Iran facing more sanctions and isolation for refusing to make concessions over its nuclear program.

"Certainly there is more visible Iranian influence around the region," said Salman Shaikh, director of The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. "But these are no longer just vassals of Iran. As they move into political roles, there will be changes that Iran cannot control. We shouldn't look at Lebanon as a zero-sum game between Iran and the West."

The same may hold true elsewhere.

In Iraq, influence from Iran is on the rise now that backers of militant Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have joined the government in Baghdad, which already had deep ties with Iran. Al-Sadr remains fiercely opposed to American "occupiers" - which his Mahdi Army militia battled for years.

But al-Sadr - who took refuge in Iran in 2007 - showed hints of trying to cultivate a more statesmanlike demeanor during his first visit back to Iraq. Al-Sadr this month held meetings that included pro-Western figures such as President Jalal Talabani and urged Iraq's majority Shiites and Sunnis to look beyond their past bloodshed.

There's little chance that al-Sadr will ease his demands that the Pentagon stick to its timetable to withdraw all troops by the end of the year. And his Iranian links are obvious. At a speech in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, his guards wore Iranian style outfits: identical gray suits with shirts and no ties.

"Yet now he has to answer to the Iraqi people about rebuilding the country," said Hadi Jalo, a political analyst at Baghdad University. "He goes from outsider to insider and that means he has to look in all directions, including the West, and not just toward Iran."

Syria, too, appears to be facing similar choices.

Earlier this month, the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since 2005 took up his post in Damascus. Washington hopes the deeper diplomatic engagement will further nudge Syrian President Bashar Assad into the Western fold and perhaps make him more receptive to future talks with Israel and appeals to cut support for Hezbollah.

About a week later, Iran's acting foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, held talks in Syria over "regional developments," said Syria's state news agency SANA.

High on the agenda was the political upheaval in Lebanon and their roles as co-patrons of Hezbollah, which became heroes in the Muslim world for its war with Israel in 2006. The Shiite militant group has added to its stature by becoming Lebanon's king-maker: On Tuesday, Hezbollah picked billionaire businessman Najib Mikati as its choice for prime minister.

Lebanon's government fell after months of tensions over a U.N.-backed investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Many Lebanese blamed the killing on Syria and Hezbollah - with huge protests forcing Syria to end its 29-year military presence in Lebanon and opening the way for a pro-Western government led by Saad Hariri, the slain politician's son.

The Hague-based tribunal has issued indictments, but they have not been made public. Many expect Hezbollah to be named.

Mikati, however, immediately sought to ease worries that Iran was now pulling the strings in Lebanon.

"I am not in a confrontation with the West," he told the private LBC station. "We are looking to build good relations with the West."

To some, it's not an empty promise - even as the Obama administration reconsiders its economic and military support for Lebanon, which has totaled $720 million since 2006.

Israeli officials and others have noted that important U.S. allies in the Arab world, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have raised no serious objections to the U.S.-educated Mikati despite their deep-seated worries about Iran.

Saudi Arabia, however, advised its citizens Wednesday not to travel to Lebanon until "the return of calm and stability."

"Lebanon will not suddenly become more Iranian or more 'Hezbollian' than it was two days ago," said a commentary in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. "It will primarily be more Syrian, and that is a major difference, as Syria - which seeks to move closer to the United States and, thanks to France, sees itself as close to Europe - does not want Iran to seize control in its traditional sphere of influence."

That still doesn't lessen the entrenched suspicions many Lebanese have toward Hezbollah and its backers in Iran.

A secret diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks describes an April 2008 meeting in Beirut in which Lebanon's telecommunications minister at the time, Marwan Hamadeh, tells a U.S. diplomat about a fiber optics network installed in Hezbollah-controlled areas. The memo, from the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, said Hamadeh called it "a strategic victory" for Iran's telecoms agency by creating an "an important Iranian outpost in Lebanon" that further binds Hezbollah to Tehran.

Earlier this week, Lebanon's Sunnis staged two days of riots, decrying Shiite Hezbollah for leading what they called an Iran-linked "coup" in bringing down Hariri's government and bringing in one of its own choosing.

Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel, said the unrest cannot be ignored by Iran's ruling clerics.

"It was Hezbollah's actions that convinced many Sunnis to pour into the streets ... shouting 'Death to Hezbollah,'" he said. "This is something which Israel, despite its massive military superiority, could never achieve. Food for thought for Iran's senior decision makers."

Iran also was stung by demonstrations in Afghanistan this month over Tehran's decision to temporarily suspend shipments of fuel over suspicions they were aiding NATO forces. Fuel prices shot up as much as 70 percent in impoverished Afghanistan.

It was a display of both Iran's importance as an economic lifeline to Afghanistan and its apparent sympathies for groups fighting U.S. forces and others. Iran has deep cultural and linguistic ties to much of western Afghanistan, which was once part of the Persian Empire.

U.S. officials have alleged that Iran is providing weapons and other support to the Taliban and the so-called "Quetta Shura" - or governing council - believed led by Taliban commander Mullah Omar. It would, however, be an alliance of convenience that could strengthen the same forces that once targeted Iranians.

Iran was a staunch opponent of the Taliban when it ruled Afghanistan before the U.S.-led invasion triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"In the short-term, Iran is playing its hand well, especially in Lebanon," said analyst Javedanfar. "This will boost Iran's position in the region as well as its leverage in negotiations with the West over its nuclear program. However, the Iranian are not playing the long-term game very well."

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Brian Murphy

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