Iran and the talent for making enemies
By Paul Salem
Daily Star
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

America's decision to target Iranian agents in Iraq who may be involved in supporting violent militias is but another sign of the massive influence Iran is exercising in that troubled country. But the United States in fact facilitated Iran's growing influence by toppling Saddam Hussein's regime and that of the Taliban in Afghanistan, thus removing two factors that had kept the Iranian regime hemmed in for the last two decades. Moreover, high oil prices have filled the Iranian national treasury, and Iran is benefiting from the opportunity created by America's being bogged down in Iraq and the growing international weight of Russia and China.

Iran is also reaping the returns of long-term investments. It has supported Iraqi Shiite groups since the early 1980s and has an equally longstanding alliance with Syria. In Lebanon, Iran helped create Hizbullah, which recently survived a head-on war with Israel and is the leading opponent of the anti-Syrian, Western-backed government. Iran's investment in Palestine is more recent, but its backing for the Hamas-led government, which has been frustrated elsewhere, is no less significant. A country of 70 million, Iran also has potential influence over Shiite communities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates.

Iran's rise is causing alarm in the Arab Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, but also in Egypt. Though a Shiite country in an overwhelmingly Sunni region, Iran's radical Islamism resonates with the politicized Islamism that is energizing most Arab opposition movements, and its militant opposition to the US and support for groups that engage Israel in battle is very popular in the so-called "Arab street" and in the Arab media. At another level, Iran's rise, reinforced by its suspected bid for nuclear weapons, threatens to awaken historical hostilities between Sunnis and Shiites and between Persians and Arabs.

Both Iran and the Arab countries are struggling to come to terms with the consequences of Iran's newfound assertiveness. To be sure, Iran's longstanding support for regional Shiite groups is paying off. But its successes in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine are creating great anxiety, and even hostility, in some quarters. The rapid Shiite rise has already turned into a sectarian civil war in Iraq and recently has threatened to generate the same outcome in Lebanon.

If Iran does not properly manage its growing power, it could unwittingly trigger a drawn-out sectarian war throughout the region, a nuclear arms race with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and war with Israel, the US, or both. The ensuing crises could change the behavior of major Sunni powers, such as Egypt and Turkey, which have at times been dominant in the region, but lately have been disengaged. Too many Iranian successes, and too many Sunni debacles, could also lead to immense pressure in Syria, where a minority Alawite regime dominates a Sunni majority. The loss of Damascus would cost Iran its influence in Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine in one go.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration is maintaining its radical rhetoric, perhaps looking ahead to a post-Bush era, when the US has withdrawn from Iraq and Iran has developed nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, Iran also feels a need for accommodation with its adversaries. For example, while Iran may not be happy with the American presence in Iraq, it realizes how close the country is to full-scale civil war. As a result, it has expressed a willingness to cooperate with the US on finding a soft landing for Iraq. Likewise, while Iran supports Hizbullah, it has also held the party back from measures that might trigger a further Sunni backlash in the region. In the Gulf, Iran has tried to reassure its Arab neighbors that Iranian power is not aimed against them and can, in fact, be a pillar of Gulf security.

But the Arab world is divided over how to deal with the sudden rise in Iranian power. The tension is particularly acute in Saudi Arabia, which has warned the US about the dangers of Iraq's possible collapse and now finds itself in an unequal face-off with Iran. Some in the kingdom argue that Saudi Arabia must confront Iran, stand up for Sunni Arab interests, and become a hands-on regional power. Other Saudis believe that confrontation will only lead to wider wars and are urging dialogue and accommodation. In their view the US, not Iran, was behind the region's current problems.

Iran's regional foreign policy has not yet caught up with its new pre-eminence; it is making as many enemies as it is gaining friends, and it might squander the windfall gains that it made in the past three years. If Iran and the Arab countries - and alongside them the US and the international community - do not manage today's tensions wisely, the region could enter a period of protracted warfare.

But there is a way forward, because all players in the region share an interest in security and stability. Leaders in Tehran, Riyadh, Washington, and other key capitals must realize the costs of further mismanagement, step back from the brink, and work toward cooperative solutions before it is too late.

**Paul Salem is the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (