- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

BEIRUT

The young, bearded diplomat stretches back on his black 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 approach 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 Washington’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 this 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 majority-Shi’ite.

The worries of Arab leaders are evident in their statements.

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal recently criticized “non-Arab 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 Hezbollah successfully fought off Israel 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.

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