- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Iran seems to be gaining ground and influence in the Levant, much to the detriment of the United States, its European allies and pro-democracy movements in the region.

Indeed, recent developments in the Middle East have not unfolded entirely in favor of the United States or its other ally in the region, Lebanon.

At the same time, efforts by the West to break up the Syria-Iran alliance in the hope of weakening the Islamic Republic’s political sway in the region also are showing signs of failure.

While Damascus may slowly begin to distance itself from Tehran as a result of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s newly found friendship with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the outcome of a new French initiative launched by the Elysee Palace in July has not weakened the Islamic Republic’s influence on Lebanese politics, much as Tehran continues to influence the Palestinian Islamic Movement, Hamas, in the Gaza Strip.

Running counter to efforts by the administration of President Bush to isolate Syria, which the United States accuses, along with Iran, of supporting terrorism and terrorist groups, the French president invited his Syrian counterpart to attend the Summit for the Mediterranean in France in July and then followed up with an invitation for Mr. Assad to attend the July 14 National Day - or Bastille Day - celebration in Paris.

The move was intended to bring Syria out of the cold and, in the process, further isolate Iran. And it may very well have initiated a crack in Syria-Iran relations. But that, too, did not entirely produce the desired results. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, Tehran began to take steps to reinforce its position in Lebanon.

In the deadly chess match that is Middle East politics, a game in which the strategic stakes are immensely high and losing is not an option, the Iranians seem yet again to have taken the upper hand and are moving in to capture the queen - at least momentarily.

All this is being done, of course, through Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite political/paramilitary/social organization that is trained and financed by Iran.

Hezbollah is rapidly positioning itself in all aspects of Lebanese society, turning into a force that no longer can be ignored in the political and military arenas. And that is becoming true not only of Lebanon but also more and more regionally.

Indeed, the militant Shi’ite group has made great strides in recent months, first by reintegrating the Lebanese government, where it now has the power of veto. This gives Hezbollah the ability to block any laws the government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora - an ally of the United States - would try to enact that could end up disfavoring the movement.

For example, a point of contention in Lebanon since the end of the civil war in 1990 has been the fact that the multitude of armed militias that proliferated in the country were asked to hand in their armaments, while Hezbollah faced no such restrictions.

The reason given was that Hezbollah was a “resistance group” and, as such, was allowed to retain its weapons, and that Hezbollah also promised it would never turn its weapons on its fellow Lebanese.

Well, as the recent violence in Beirut demonstrated, that promise didn’t hold.

Furthermore, not only is Hezbollah becoming solidly cemented in the country’s politics, it also is emerging as a regional power that Israel now needs to take into consideration.

The Second Lebanon War waged by Israel on Hezbollah in the summer of 2006 proved to be a major mistake. Though weakened by the loss of hundreds of its combatants over a period of some 33 days of intense aerial and artillery bombardment and heavy fighting, the Shi’ite group emerged stronger and more determined than ever before.

Today, new intelligence from the Lebanese capital speaks of truly worrisome developments:

• First, a report published by the Middle East Times on Aug. 15 revealed that Hezbollah has become five times stronger today than it was in 2006 in terms of “weaponry, strategic and political positioning.”

• Second, Hezbollah is reported not only to be reinforcing its defenses in the south and in Beirut’s southern suburbs, its traditional strongholds, but also to be expanding its defenses and digging a vast network of tunnels to other parts of the country, including around the northern port city of Tripoli and in the mountains above the traditional Christian heartland.

• Third, new reports from the Syrian Reform Party that have not been independently confirmed indicate that members of Iran’s al-Quds Force have arrived in Beirut to coordinate joint activities with Hezbollah.

If proved true, the deployment of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon opens up an entirely new - and worrisome - chapter in the Middle East conflict.

Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.

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