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Iran Hangs On Mideast Outcome

The Iranian nuclear program had been slated as the primary issue for the recent Group of Eight talks until the Middle East crisis overshadowed it.
by Meghan O'connell
UPI Correspondent
Washington (UPI) Jul 28, 2006
Iran will use the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah as a yardstick to measure how far it can push the international community over its nuclear program, experts say.

"If the international community is not able to deal effectively with Hezbollah, it will not only embolden Iran, but other rogue states as well," such as Syria and North Korea, said Peter Brooks, a senior fellow in National Security Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

How countries respond is critical, because a positive outcome for Hezbollah could encourage other terrorist groups to push the international community further, Brooks said, bringing them more support, recruits and funding.

Since fighting erupted two weeks ago between Israel and Iran-backed Hezbollah militants, 51 Israelis and at least 400 Lebanese, mostly civilians, have been killed and more than 800,000 displaced. Heavy Israeli bombing has shattered much of Lebanon's infrastructure and threatens to undo all progress made since last year's Cedar Revolution that purged Syria and injected some momentum into the country's flickering democracy.

While the conflict may serve to increase Syrian and Iranian involvement in Lebanase politics, experts say a cease-fire may not help either. "If we go back to the status quo ante," Brooks said, "we will be talking about a war between Israel and Hezbollah again at some point."

Hezbollah-Israeli combat has wrenched international attention away from Iran's drive toward nuclear capability. The Iranian nuclear program had been slated as the primary issue for the recent Group of Eight talks until the Middle East crisis overshadowed it.

"The number one advantage that they're getting is that the nuclear issue is off the table, so they've bought time," Aaron Mannes, author of "Profiles in Terror" and a specialist on Middle East affairs and terrorism, said of Iran.

Iran holds a position of influence with Hezbollah, and Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, asserted that since this was a significant operation, Iran probably knew of Hezbollah's plans.

Israel is capable of defeating Hezbollah, but the humanitarian and financial cost would outweigh the benefits, Mannes said.

"Israel doesn't particularly want to bomb Lebanon, and they recognize that there's a humanitarian crisis," he said, adding that the likely option of a cease-fire will lead to both sides claiming victory.

"In that part of the world, walking away from a fight standing, especially against a far superior Western power, counts as a win."

Leaving Saddam Hussein standing after the Gulf War robbed the United States of a firm victory, Mannes continued. If Hezbollah emerges from the conflict with a semblance of organization and its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, is still alive, the group will have won in appraisal of the Arab world.

But a sustainable cease-fire is not feasible, which erases truce as an advisable option, said Patrick Clawson, deputy director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Even a perceived Hezbollah defeat could cement Iran's resolve to acquire nuclear weapons to protect itself from Western aggression.

"They would be very canny and cautious about how they do it, but they have been playing a very complicated game of bluff and deception for a decade now," Mannes said. "I think they see the nuclear program as integral to their survival and to their ambitions."

Brooks thinks that though Iran directs Hezbollah to an extent, the group ultimately calls its own shots. However, he found it shocking that Hezbollah would abduct Israeli soldiers after observing Israel's reaction to Hamas' capture of an Israeli. Hezbollah said it acted to secure a prisoner swap, something Israel has allowed in the past.

While Iran and Syria are intertwined with Hezbollah, they are not the sole sources of the problem, and the region must be viewed as a whole, Brooks said. He added: "I don't think there's any one critical point of failure."

Source: United Press International

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