Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Israel’s clash with Hezbollah in Lebanon may just be the undercard bout.

With the rhetoric rising and positions hardening, many in the region fear that the current fighting could easily spiral out of control, pitting Israel and the United States in the main bout against the two countries they accuse of arming and inciting Hezbollah fighters: Syria and, especially, Iran.

“We are clearly on an escalation road,” said Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Analysts said the chances of a larger clash have grown because of the new, untested leadership now in charge in many of the key capitals, and because both sides appear to think they have the upper hand.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad both face domestic pressure to hang tough.

Since Hezbollah’s seizure of two Israeli soldiers Wednesday, Tel Aviv and Washington repeatedly have pointed to Syria and Iran as the main outside sponsors of the Islamist movement.

“The reason we now see this [violence] is because of a premeditated attack or strategy that unfortunately is being concocted in Damascus and Tehran,” said Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Friday.

Israel repeatedly has linked Iran to the Lebanon crisis, saying at one point that it feared the captured Israeli soldiers would be sent to Iran. Israeli military sources said over the weekend it was an Iranian-supplied C802 shore-to-ship missile fired by an Iranian team that hit an Israeli ship off the Lebanese coast late Friday.

Iranian Foreign Ministry officials quickly denied that Iranian missiles were used or that any Iranian soldiers were fighting in Lebanon.

But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said yesterday, “Very clearly, there are ties” linking Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas group.

“So the cries pleading ignorance from Syria and Iran about what is going on in the region or that they don’t have any influence with either of these two groups frankly ring hollow,” he said.

The Bush administration also has been harshly critical of the role played by Damascus and Tehran in Iraq. U.S. officials said Syrian President Bashar Assad has not done enough to curb the flow of fighters and material support to insurgents fighting the U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, accused Iran last week of playing a “double game” in Iraq, cultivating good official relations with Baghdad while covertly backing rogue Shi’ite militias and other “surrogates” that are undermining the Iraq government’s effort to establish control.

“Unless Iran abandons the second prong of its policy that is unhelpful to Iraq and the coalition, together we and the Iraqis will have to take additional steps to deal with the challenge,” Mr. Khalilzad told a Senate hearing.

But Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now director of the Brookings’ Saban Center, said the problems the U.S. military has encountered dealing with the Iraq insurgency have only emboldened Iran.

“Iran does not take us seriously these days, and why should they?” he said. Tehran has, to date, defied the international community on the nuclear issue, and the problems it can pose for the United States in Iraq and Lebanon only increase its clout, he said.

“It is hard to see how Iran right now can be made to curb its top proxy in the region,” Mr. Indyk said.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of a new book on Israel and Iran, said it was unlikely that Hezbollah or its allies in Syria and Iran expected the massive Israeli military response to the seizure of its soldiers.

With an ailing economy and weak military, Syria is seen as more vulnerable to U.S. and Israeli pressure. It has been seeking closer ties with Iran at a time when other leading Arab states — notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia — have expressed concern about Iran’s growing regional ambitions.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki flew to Damascus yesterday to pledge Tehran’s support to Syria in the face of “any threat of aggression.”

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