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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Iran Hangs in Suspense as War Offers New Strength, and Sudden Weakness

By MICHAEL SLACKMAN

TEHRAN, July 29 — These should be heady days for Iran’s leaders. Hezbollah, widely regarded as its proxy force in Lebanon, continues to rain down rockets on Israel despite 17 days of punishing airstrikes. Hezbollah’s leader is a hero of the Arab world, and Iran is basking in the reflected glory.

Yet this capital is unusually tense. Officials, former officials and analysts say that it is too dangerous even to discuss the crisis. In newspapers, the slightest questioning of support for Hezbollah has been attacked as unpatriotic, pro-Zionist and anti-Islamic.

As the war in Lebanon grinds on, Iranian officials cannot seem to decide whether Iran will emerge stronger — or unexpectedly weakened.

They are increasingly confident of an ideological triumph. But they also believe the war itself has already harmed Hezbollah’s strength as a military deterrent for Iran on the Israeli border.

And foreign policy experts and former government officials said that Iran had come to view Israel’s attack on Lebanon as a proxy offensive. They now view the war as the new front line in the decades-old conflict with Washington.

“They are worried that what’s happened in Lebanon to Hezbollah is the United States’ revenge against Iran,” said Hamidreza Jalaipour, a sociologist and former government official. “The way they are attacking them and fighting against them is like waging a war against Iran.”

Iran’s relationship to Hezbollah is both strategic and ideological. The Islamic Revolution in 1979 was viewed by its clerical leaders as a part of a pan-Muslim movement. Linking up with the Shiite Muslims of southern Lebanon was part of Iran’s efforts to spread its ideological influence. But in building up Hezbollah, the ideological motivation fused with a practical desire to put a force on Israel’s northern border.

No matter how this conflict is resolved, Iranian officials already see their strategic military strength diminished, said the policy experts, former officials and one official with close ties to the highest levels of government. Even if a cease-fire takes hold, and Hezbollah retains some military ability, a Lebanese public eager for peace may act as a serious check.

In the past, Iran believed that Israel might pause before attacking it because they would assume Hezbollah would assault the northern border. If Hezbollah emerges weaker, or restrained militarily because of domestic politics, Iran feels it may be more vulnerable.

“This was God’s gift to Israel,” said Nasser Hadian, a political science professor at Tehran University and an expert in Iranian foreign policy. “Hezbollah gave them the golden opportunity to attack.”

He said that Iran does not have the military ability at home to fight an aggressive offensive war against Israel from so far away. He said its only offensive tool would be a missile, which he said would be of limited effect and accuracy.

“If Israel attacked us tomorrow, what are we going to do?” he said.

Analysts and former government officials said Iran has focused on trying to preserve Hezbollah’s influence and deterrence capability. They said Iran has counseled Hezbollah not to show its full military ability to preserve Israeli uncertainty. That may prove difficult for Hezbollah to agree to, given that it is in the midst of a war, and may lead to a divergence of agendas, analysts and former government officials said.

Iran has also worked hard to convince the Lebanese, and Muslims around the world, that Hezbollah is not to blame for the destruction in Lebanon and that it is a legitimate resistance force. That is viewed here as essential to preserve Hezbollah’s influence in Lebanon after the war, and with it Iran’s in the region.

Even as Iranian officials fret about the potential risks, they are savoring the ideological boost. If Hezbollah emerges as the primary political force in Lebanon, Arab governments, which have not pressed hard for a cease-fire, may find that in order to deal with Hezbollah they will have to work through Iran.

One foreign policy expert who is a sometime consultant to the government said that if Hezbollah continued to lob missiles into Israel for another six months to a year, the resulting turmoil in the region could make Iran a power to reckon with in Lebanon as it is in Iraq.

The expert, a professor of international relations at a university in Tehran who is an occasional consultant to the foreign ministry, spoke on the condition he not be identified because he was afraid of retribution.

On the domestic front, the war has promoted officials here to begin to assess how the outcome might require that they retool policies and strategies involving everything from the nuclear issue to diplomatic relations with Arab countries.

Power in Iran is not concentrated in any one hand, not even that of the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, but is spread out among many levels. Major decisions, like the nuclear policy, are often a result of consultation and compromise among many forces among Iran’s clerical and political elite.

Confidence in Iran’s ideological gains since the war broke out has buoyed Iran’s hard-liners, and has influenced an internal debate that has been running since the revolution, over whether Iran should focus on domestic economic and political development or on its role as a pan-Islamic leader hoping to spread its revolutionary ideas, political analysts here said.

Even before the war, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was trying to position Iran as the leader of the pan-Muslim world, to unite all Muslims, whether Arabs or Indonesians or Indians, behind the leadership of Tehran. The analysts said that Mr. Ahmadinejad, who was elected on a populist economic message, is the most ideologically driven of Iran’s presidents since the revolution.

“Iran is now playing to its strength,” said a foreign policy expert affiliated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who like many people here said he was afraid to be identified for fear of retribution.

Iran is the only nation in the Muslim world controlled by members of the Shiite sect of Islam, and its push to be a regional leader had raised concerns among the area’s Sunni leadership.

Iran has used the war in Lebanon to try to prove that talk of a Shiite threat is a fiction created by Arab leaders and Americans seeking to maintain power in the hands of American friends in Cairo, Amman and Riyadh.

It has pointed to Israel’s destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure to promote the idea that this war is not against Hezbollah but against all Muslims. And Iran’s leaders have sought to burnish their own image, at the expense of their Sunni rivals.

“It is inconceivable for anyone who calls himself a Muslim and who heads an Islamic state to maintain relations under the table with the regime that occupied Jerusalem,” said President Ahmadinejad in an interview on Iranian television this week, in a clear dig against governments like Egypt’s. “He cannot take pleasure in the killing of Muslims yet present himself as a Muslim. This is inconceivable, and must be exposed. Allah willing, it will.”

He posed an even more direct challenge in comments broadcast last week on Iranian television: “A bunch of people with no honor rule some countries in the region. People are being killed before their eyes, while they play games, giving compliments to one another. They think they can let time go by until this issue is forgotten, and then return to the scene. No, they are mistaken.”

The moment Hezbollah captured two Israeli soldiers, the United States and Israel complained that Iran and its ally, Syria, played a role in sparking the crisis.

Both have denied any advance knowledge of Hezbollah’s raid on July 12. It is hard to know here if analysts and former officials say they accept that notion because they believe it — or because they are afraid to contradict the government.

Only one influential person, Muhammad Atrianfar, publisher of the newspaper Shargh, said in an interview that Hezbollah would never stage such a significant operation without at least notifying Tehran.

“Officially, Iran is not aware of what Hezbollah does,” he said. “Logically and unofficially Iran is always aware. The reason is clear, because of all that Iran has done for Hezbollah. Hezbollah is Iran in Lebanon. When Iran looks at Hezbollah, it sees Iran.”

In fact, the accepted wisdom here is that the Israeli assault was pre-planned, and that the capture of the two soldiers was simply its excuse. Further, people here believe that the true target was Tehran, and that Israel, the United States and Arab governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are hoping to roll back Iran’s influence in the region.

“They want to cut one of Iran’s arms,” said the Iranian official with close personal ties to the highest levels of government.

“Israel and the U.S. knew that as long as Hamas and Hezbollah were there, confronting Iran would be costly,” said Mohsen Rezai, former head of the Revolutionary Guards, said in an interview with the Baztab website. “So, to deal with Iran, they first want to eliminate forces close to Iran that are in Lebanon and Palestine.”

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting for this article.

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