Iran's Stake in the Mideast Crisis

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To the outside world used to the heated rhetoric of its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran might seem eager to jump at the chance to get involved in the current conflict between Israel, Lebanon and the Iranian-backed militant group Hizballah. But in fact, with its nuclear dispute unresolved and the risk of confrontation with the U.S. still looming, Iran can ill afford to play an active role in the escalating crisis. The top leadership in Tehran is focused on settling the nuclear issue diplomatically, and fears that if the mess in Lebanon spreads, Iran's thorny negotiation track with the West could be derailed altogether.

During Friday prayer, the classic platform here for signaling policy to the world, there was no fiery bluster, just muted condemnations of the recent violence. "I don't see Iran entering this crisis militarily unless it's dragged in," says Saeed Laylaz, an analyst and former official. Iran might get involved, analysts here say, only if the conflagration widened dramatically, by Israel attacking Syria or even Iran itself.

Iran's cautiousness might not be obvious to the outside world, since Ahmadinejad rushed to warn Israel about the consequences of extending its offensive to Syria: "[This] will be equivalent to an attack on the whole Islamic world, and [Israel] will face a crushing response," he said during a phone conversation with Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to the official Iranian news agency.

Iran may avoid getting drawn into the conflict, but that doesn't mean Ahmadinejad isn't eager to exploit the moment to advance his popularity in the Arab and Islamic world. While other influential regional players like Saudi Arabia have tried to ease tensions by calling on Hizballah to show restraint, Ahmadinejad's comments have been aimed at raising the temperature. "Those who keep silent are complicit in the Zionist regime's barbarism," he said in a public speech, a jab at the refusal of Arab leaders to cheer on Hizballah. In an address the next day, he said: "The Zionist regime's assault on Lebanon is a violation against the people of the whole region."

Iran's television networks, including its Arab-language station broadcast by satellite around the region, carried extensive images of Lebanese casualties and effusive coverage of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrullah. "Ahmadinejad always considers it his role to crowd-please in the Islamic world," says Mohammad Atrianfar, editor of Shargh newspaper. "But this is rhetoric, not actual policy."

As one of Hizballah's key patrons, it's difficult to describe Iran as neutral in the unfolding conflict. Since the Ayatollah Khomeini launched Hizballah in the early eighties to spread Shia revolution, Western officials say Iran has kept contingents of Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon, the most strategic area outside its own borders where Tehran can exercise influence. Western diplomatic estimates of how many are there and where exactly they are vary, but several hundred Revolutionary Guards are believed to operate in the Hizballah-controlled Beqaa Valley, providing operational training to the movement's guerilla forces. For its part, Iran insists its aid to Hizballah is limited to humanitarian and moral support.

The intimate relationship between Iran and Hizballah has evolved since 2000, when Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon freed the militant group to expand the scope of its activities in the region. U.S. officials believe Iran has looked increasingly to Hizballah as a tool to thwart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by encouraging the group to lend operational support to Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

Syria's troop withdrawal from Lebanon last year has also reshaped Iran's dealings with Hizballah, analysts here say. Before the Syrian withdrawal, Iran and Damascus competed for influence through their various Lebanese proxies, but now Iran is finding it to easier to funnel its support for Hizballah via Damascus. "Iran and Syria are now standing behind each other," says Laylaz. "Their strategy is more unified." Does this mean that Iran micro-manages Hizballah or vets its major operations? "Hizballah sees the need to confer with Iran," says Atrianfar. "But it doesn't necessarily do so over tactics."

Back in the spring of 2002, when the moderate government of then President Mohammad Khatami sought to cozy up to the United States, Iran ordered Hizballah to call off its rocket attacks on Israel's northern border. Iran's then Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi flew to Beirut, and made an uncharacteristic public call for Hizballah to "exercise self-restraint." Within days, the border went quiet. But with an agitator like Ahmadinejad at the helm, Iran is more likely to watch the conflict burn than help to put it out, all the while playing to the crowds in the streets.