Tehran likely to gain if Lebanon fighting continues

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Iran’s suspected support for the recent Hezbollah attacks on Israel could undo the international community’s solidarity over Iran’s nuclear program, analysts said yesterday.

“The international community put Iran in a difficult situation by coming together like it hadn’t before on the nuclear issue in recent months. But the longer the conflict in Lebanon is strung out, the more likely it is that the coalition could be weakened,” said Kenneth Pollack, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former Middle East analyst for the CIA.

Mr. Pollack said in a press briefing that the ongoing conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon could give Iran an excuse to avoid responding to an internationally backed offer promising incentives for suspending its nuclear program. It also could divide the United States, Europe, Russia and China over the issue and allow Iranian nuclear ambitions to advance, he warned.

“Israel is doing what it can to weaken Iran by damaging Hezbollah,” said Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel. But the international community must do its part by sticking together and acknowledging that “Iran’s support for terrorism and its nuclear program are sides of the same coin and must be dealt with,” he said.

Philip Gordon, a fellow at Brookings and a former director of European affairs at the National Security Council, said the Middle East conflict could undo recent progress in trans-Atlantic cooperation over Iran’s nuclear program. Hard-liners in the United States could become frustrated with Europe’s approach, he said.

“In recent months, the Bush administration has made a dramatic change in policy by working with the Europeans and offering carrots to Iran. With the recent fighting between Hezbollah and Israel — which the United States blames Iran for — the hard-line position is strengthened,” Mr. Gordon said.

He also said the Europeans might split with the United States over its strong support for Israel’s military response to the Hezbollah attacks — which many Europeans say is disproportionate.

Russia poses another significant threat to the coalition’s unity, analysts said.

“Russia is schizophrenic on this issue. It doesn’t want to sacrifice economic prospects with Iran and doesn’t want to look like America’s puppet, but recognizes a security threat in Iran,” said Carlos Pascual, a fellow at Brookings and a former State Department official.

He said Russian President Vladimir Putin does not want to draw a link between Iran’s reputed bad behavior in the Lebanon conflict and its nuclear program because he would prefer to resolve the nuclear issue in a way that avoids sanctions and allows Moscow to retain relations with Tehran.

Jeffrey Bader, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said China — like Russia — wants to preserve its economic ties to Iran, especially in the energy sector.

“Iran is China’s second largest source of oil, so it will want to stick as close to Russia for as long as it can. But China is very clear that its ties with America are more important and it wants a stable Middle East to deal with. I think China will be pretty passive during this conflict,” he said.

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