Sunday, January 11, 2009
Chicago Tribune (MCT)
BEIRUT — Looming over the Gaza conflict is the long shadow of Iran, which has much to win or lose from the outcome of the battles raging nearly two weeks after Israel launched its devastating onslaught to stop Hamas rocket attacks.
For Iran, which provides funding and training to Hamas, the crisis represents an almost existential battle in its quest to become a regional superpower, in which Hamas plays a key role as an extension of Shiite Iranian influence.
"Iran stands to gain more influence if Hamas survives, because Hamas is a direct auxiliary for Iran — an Iranian foothold on the Mediterranean," said Oussama Safa, a Mideast analyst who heads the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies.
"Crushing Hamas in Gaza means chasing out the influence of the Iranians from this part of the region."
With the current fighting representing a battle in a wider struggle for regional dominance, Iran's intentions will be key in determining whether the conflict remains confined to Gaza or escalates into a wider war that would almost certainly embroil its other chief ally, Lebanon's militant Hezbollah movement, analysts say.
So far, Iran has not indicated any desire to see an escalation. Noisy displays of outrage on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities may have offered a useful diversion from the country's economic woes, which is to the benefit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is up for re-election this year.
At the international level, Iranian leaders have confined their fiery anti-Israel rhetoric to efforts to pressure Arab and world leaders to push Israel to accept a cease-fire, one that would enable Hamas to survive.
After claims by hard-line student groups in Iran that 70,000 young men had volunteered to carry out suicide missions against Israel, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, forbade them from traveling.
Iran also dispatched to Beirut its top national security adviser, Saeed Jalili, who met with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Jan. 3. Though the substance of their talks has not been disclosed, the Arab daily Al-Hayat said they focused on "ways to stop the aggression" — but not on an escalation.
Hamas is no puppet of Iran's — it came into being without Iranian support and its goal of retrieving territory for a future Palestine would continue without Iran, said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. It would also not serve Hamas' interests to be supported by Iran too publicly, at a time when many in the mostly Sunni Arab world view Shiite Iran with deep suspicion, he said.
That's another reason Hamas, a Sunni fundamentalist movement, is important to Iran _ because it helps give Iran credibility among Arabs, said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, of the Lebanese American University. "Playing the Palestinian card is a way of winning Arab hearts and minds. Hamas is a bridge for Iran to the Arab Sunni world," she said.
She does not rule out the possibility that Iran would open a second front in the Gaza conflict, by encouraging its well-armed Hezbollah ally to take action along Israel's northern border if Hamas appeared to be in danger of collapse.
"If Hamas were to be defeated, it would be a grave blow for Iran," she said.
Analyst Safa thinks it unlikely that Hezbollah would intervene: The Shiite movement is participating in June elections, which it hopes to win, and its chances could be jeopardized if it precipitates another war with Israel like the one that killed over 1,000 people in 2006, he said.
"Iran is very cool-headed. Iran doesn't get angry, it gets even," Safa said.
But with Iran still defiantly pursuing a nuclear program that the West alleges is intended to build weapons, many wonder how long it will be before there is a full-scale showdown with Israel. As Israel's chief ally, and with over 170,000 troops stationed on Iran's borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. would almost certainly risk becoming involved.
President-elect Barack Obama reiterated on Friday his intention to seek a negotiated solution to the standoff with Iran.
"I have said in the past, during the course of the (election) campaign, that Iran is a genuine threat to U.S. national security," Obama told reporters in Washington. "But I have also said that we should be willing to initiate diplomacy as a mechanism to achieve our national security goals."
At a forum organized last week by the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, however, former Defense Secretary William Perry warned that Iran's quest for nuclear weapons appears unstoppable and will likely present Obama with his first major foreign policy crisis.
"It seems clear that Israel will not sit by idly while Iran takes defiant steps toward becoming a nuclear power," said Perry, who served under Bill Clinton. "As a result President Obama will almost certainly face a serious crisis with Iran. Indeed, I believe that crisis point will be reached in his first year in office."
(c) 2009, Chicago Tribune.
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