Iran basks in its grow­ing in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Scheherezade Fara­marzi

BEIRUT — The young, bearded diplo­mat­stretch­es­back­on­his­black leather sofa, speak­ing with the sat­is­fac­tion of a CEO who has far ex­ceeded Wall Street’s ex­pec­ta­tions.

“Iran has never been so pow­er­ful in the re­gion,” de­clares Na­jaf Ali Mirzai, me­dia and cul­tural at­tache at the Ira­nian Em­bassy here who wears a cleric’s robe.

“Iran is now com­fort­ably as­sured that it can re­spond to any kind of Amer­i­can ag­gres­sion,” he adds.

Not since the 1979 revo­lu­tion that brought Is­lamic clergy to power has Iran been so strong. It has ex­panded its in­flu­ence in Iraq, in Le­banon, among the Pales­tini­ans, in Per­sian Gulf states such as Bahrain and Kuwait, and even in parts of Afghanistan. It is im­prov­ing its mis­siles and ex­pand­ing a nu­clear pro­gram that the West says aims to pro­duce bombs. Iran says the pro­gram is peace­ful.

Its so­phis­ti­cated cam­paign to spread its in­flu­ence, some­times in di­rect con­flict with U.S. in­ter­ests, is caus­ing con­cern in the re­gion and be­yond. Many Arab gov­ern­ments still sup­port the United States, but they can­not re­ject Iran.

“Ira­ni­ans are play­ing with so many vari­ables, and they have so many trump cards,” said Ab­dul­lah al-Shayji, a pro­fes­sor in U.S. ally Kuwait. “We are com­pletely vul­ner­a­ble,” he said. “We don’t want to an­tag­o­nize the Ira­ni­ans, and at the same time, we don’t want to up­set the Amer­i­cans.”

Mainly Shi’ite Iran’s most valu­able card and po­tent source of in­flu­ence is Iraq, where it has long­time ties and great in­flu­ence over the three Shi’ite groups that con­trol the gov­ern­ment.

The wors­en­ing vi­o­lence in Iraq has raised the ques­tion of whether the United States should reach out to Iran. The bi­par­ti­san Iraq Study Group, led by for­mer Sec­re­tary of State James A. Baker III, sug­gests that Wash­ing­ton en­gage Iran and its ally Syria as part of a re­gional ap- proach to end­ing the Iraq fight­ing.

Pres­i­dent Bush shows no signs of do­ing that, ac­cus­ing Iran of arm­ing and sup­port­ing in­sur­gents in Iraq and fund­ing other ex­trem­ists. Iran says it is only press­ing for its le­git­i­mate nu­clear rights, and calls the United States a bully.

Even if Mr. Bush de­cides to deal with Iran on the is­sue of Iraq, Iran has made clear it is not in­clined to help un­less talks in­clude other is­sues, such as its nu­clear pro­gram.

Past over­tures have got­ten nowhere.

Dur­ing the 1993-2001 ad­min­is­tra­tion of Pres­i­dent Clin­ton, the United States said it made over­tures but was re­jected.

Un­der Pres­i­dent Mo­hammed Khatami’s ad­min­is­tra­tion and that of his pre­de­ces­sor, Ali Ak­bar Hashemi Raf­san­jani, “many sig­nals” were sent to the United States that “we are ready to im­prove ties,” but they were ig­nored, said Mr. Mirzai of the Ira­nian Em­bassy.

Iran’s cur­rent pres­i­dent, Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad, could prove more dif­fi­cult to deal with.

Mr. Ah­madine­jad has said he is ready to talk if Wash­ing­ton changes its at­ti­tude. That, Mr. Mirzai said, means Wash­ing­ton should treat Tehran with re­spect, as an equal and not an “in­fe­rior.”

“The best so­lu­tion is that we talk to each other,” he said.

U.S. lever­age against Iran in the Arab world could be hurt by Wash- in­g­ton’s trou­bles in Iraq and its un­wa­ver­ing sup­port for Is­rael. Al­though Arab coun­tries such as Egypt re­main strong al­lies of the United States, they say the dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion in Iraq and U.S. sup­port for Is­rael in its sum­mer war with Ira­nian-backed Hezbol­lah is ham­per­ing U.S.-led ef­forts else­where.

The fight­ing cre­ated anti-Amer­i­can unity be­tween tra­di­tional Shi’ite and Sunni Mus­lim foes in many parts of the Mid­dle East. It also sealed Iran’s in­flu­ence in the re­gion, Mr. Mirzai said. It was a “strate­gic” vic­tory for Iran be­cause Hezbol­lah held its own against the pow­er­ful Is­raeli army. “The war made the world take no­tice of the ex­tent of Iran’s re­gional and in­ter­na­tional role,” Mr. Mirzai said.

The lessons of the war have been ab­sorbed, es­pe­cially by Arab regimes alarmed by Iran’s in­creas­ing clout, in­clud­ing pro-U.S. Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt and Jor­dan. There is a his­tory of dis­trust be­tween th­ese Sunni-dom­i­nated states and Shi’ite, non-Arab Iran.

A top Ira­nian of­fi­cial urged Arab Gulf na­tions last month to kick the U.S. mil­i­tary out of the re­gion and join Iran in a se­cu­rity al­liance. The coun­tries seem un­likely to do that, but sev­eral did refuse to take part in re­cent U.S.-led mil­i­tary ma­neu­vers, ap­par­ently af­ter Iran sent a strong mes­sage to them to stay out of the ex­er­cise.

And on Arab streets, it’s Mr. Ah­madine­jad who is talked of ad­mir­ingly th­ese days, not Arab lead­ers.

Mr. Ah­madine­jad drew West­ern con­dem­na­tion last year for call­ing the Holo­caust a “myth” and say­ing Is­rael should be wiped off the map. But he also drew sup­port from or­di­nary Arabs an­gry at U.S. in­ter­ven­tion in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pho­tos of Iran’s Le­banese ally, Hezbol­lah leader Sheik Has­san Nas­ral­lah, are pasted on shop win­dows and seen in the streets in Cairo; Am­man, Jor­dan; and the Arab part of Jerusalem.

“Iran plays its cards cor­rectly with the or­di­nary peo­ple of the re­gion,” said Faisal al-Mu­sawi, speaker of the up­per house of par­lia­ment in Bahrain, which is Sunni-con­trolled but ma­jor­i­tyShi’ite.

The wor­ries of Arab lead­ers are ev­i­dent in their state­ments.

Saudi For­eign Min­is­ter Saud alFaisal re­cently crit­i­cized “nonArab in­ter­ven­tion in the Arab world” — a clear ref­er­ence to Iran.

Jor­dan’s King Ab­dul­lah II warned of a Shi’ite cres­cent sweep­ing across the re­gion.

In April, Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Hosni Mubarak an­gered Shi’ite lead­ers by say­ing Shi’ites across the Mid­dle East were more loyal to Iran than to their own coun­tries.

Many Sunni Mus­lim states also are alarmed that their own Shi’ite cit­i­zens are be­ing em­bold­ened by Iran’s grow­ing power. Arab an­a­lysts say that since Shi’ites took over the reins of power in Iraq, and af­ter Hezbol­lah­suc­cess­ful­ly­foughtof­fIs­rael in the sum­mer, Gulf Shi’ites are de­mand­ing more say.

“They be­lieve their time has come; it’s the Shi’ite era now,” said Mr. al-Shayji, the Kuwaiti pro­fes­sor.

Some Arab states blame Wash­ing­ton, say­ing it should do more to calm Is­raeli-Pales­tinian vi­o­lence and es­pe­cially to re­strain Is­rael.

But what­ever the United States can ac­com­plish, Iran has earned last­ing re­spect, an­a­lysts say.

“You have to ad­mire the Ira­ni­ans, al­though I dis­agree with them. They have an agenda: not to be emas­cu­lated, not to be treated like a ju­nior player in the re­gion, not to be marginal­ized,” Mr. al-Shayji said.

As­so­ci­ated Press

A por­trait of Iran’s supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, formed the back­drop as men lis­tened to Pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad in Shahriar in Oc­to­ber. Mr. Ah­madine­jad has drawn West­ern con­dem­na­tion for call­ing the Holo­caust a “myth” but is ad­mired by or­di­nary peo­ple in the Arab world.

AP

A man snapped his friend’s pho­to­graph in Septem­ber dur­ing the mil­i­tary ex­hi­bi­tion. Not since the 1979 Is­lamic revo­lu­tion has Iran ap­peared so strong. It is im­prov­ing its mis­siles and ex­pand­ing its nu­clear pro­gram, and its in­flu­ence has stretched to Iraq, Le­banon, Bahrain, Kuwait and even Afghanistan.

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