DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Four years after the United States invaded Iraq, in part to transform the Middle East, Iran is ascendant, many in the region view the Americans in retreat, and Arab countries, their own feelings of weakness accentuated, are awash in sectarian currents that many blame the United States for exacerbating.
Iran has deepened its relationship with Palestinian Islamic groups, assuming a financial role once filled by Gulf Arab states, in moves it sees as defensive and the United States views as aggressive.
In Lebanon and Iraq, Iran is fighting proxy battles against the United States with funds, arms and ideology.
And in the vacuum created by the U.S. overthrow of Iranian foes in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is exerting a power and prestige that recalls the heady days of the 1979 Islamic revolution, when Iranian clerics led the toppling of a U.S.-backed government.
“The United States is the first to be blamed for the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East,” said Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi writer and academic. Iran’s ascendance “does not reflect a real change in Iranian capabilities, economic or political. It’s more a reflection of the failures on the part of the U.S. and its Arab allies in the region.”
Added Eyal Zisser, head of the Middle Eastern and African Studies Department at Tel Aviv University in Israel: “After the whole investment in democracy in the region, the West is losing, and Iran is winning.”
The United States has signaled a more aggressive posture toward Iran:
“President Bush on Friday defended a Pentagon program to kill or capture Iranian operatives in Iraq.
“Vice President Cheney, in a Newsweek interview published Sunday, said the deployment of a second U.S. aircraft carrier task force to the Persian Gulf was intended to signal to the region that the United States is “working with friends and allies as well as the international organizations to deal with the Iranian threat.”
“And John D. Negroponte, outgoing director of national intelligence, told Congress this month that Iran’s influence is growing across the region “in ways that go beyond the menace of its nuclear program.”
‘Hostages of Iran’
Iranian officials – emboldened but uneasy over nuclear-armed neighbors in Israel and Pakistan and a U.S. military presence in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan – have warned that they would respond to an American attack on Iran’s facilities.
“Iran’s supporters are widespread – they’re in Iraq, they’re in Afghanistan, they’re everywhere. And you know, the American soldiers in the Middle East are hostages of Iran, in the situation where a war is imposed on it,” said Najaf Ali Mirzai, a former Iranian diplomat in Beirut. “The Iranians can target them wherever, and Patriot missiles aren’t going to defend them and neither is anything else.”
“Iran would suffer,” he added, “but America would suffer more.”
As that struggle deepens, many in the Arab world find themselves on the sidelines. Some accuse the United States of stoking that tension as a way to counter predominantly Shiite Iran.
Fear of Iranian dominance is coupled, sometimes in the same conversation, with suspicion of U.S. intentions in confronting Iran.
“It was necessary to create an enemy to justify the failure of the American occupation in Iraq,” Talal Salman, the editor-in-chief of as-Safir, a Lebanese newspaper, wrote in a column this month. “So to protect ourselves against the coming of the wolf, we bring the foreign fleets that fill our lands, skies and seas.”
Iran has found itself strengthened almost by default, first with the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to Iran’s east, which ousted the Taliban rulers against whom it almost went to war in the 1990s, and then to its west, with the American ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, against whom it fought an eight-year war in the 1980s.
Arab rulers allied with the United States issued stark warnings. Jordan’s King Abdullah in 2005 spoke darkly of a Shiite crescent that would stretch from Iran, through Iraq’s Shiite Arab majority, to Lebanon, where Shiites make up the largest single community.
President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt suggested last year that Shiites in the Arab world were more loyal to Iran than to their own countries.
And in a rare interview, published Saturday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia suggested that Iran, although he did not name the country, was trying to convert Sunni Arabs to Shiism.
In Beirut’s southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, a banner hangs near a bridge wrecked by Israeli strikes last summer: “The Zionist enemy destroys, the Islamic Republic of Iran builds.”
Even before the 33-day war ended, Iran had provided Hezbollah $150 million to begin rebuilding, some of it going to victims in $10,000 bundles of crisp U.S. currency, according to a Shiite politician who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“You want me to give you my opinion? Honestly?” asked Hajj Hassan Sbeiti, a 44-year-old merchant. “If you say hello to me, you probably like me. If you say hello to me and ask what I need, you’re a friend. If you say hello to me, ask what I need and put money in my hand, then you’re going to be my brother.”
In Iraq, U.S. officials say Iran is providing Shiite militias with sophisticated projectiles capable of penetrating U.S. armored vehicles and backing those forces in a gathering civil war against Sunni Arabs.
But no less influential are the ties that Iran has deepened with the three main Shiite groups in Iraq, some of whose leaders spent years in exile in Iran and are now nominally allied with the United States, and the burgeoning economic relationship between the two countries.
The extent of Iran’s engagement in the Arab world, and the rising sectarianism that has accompanied the Iranian ascendance, troubles Arabs who already worry about growing tension between the U.S. and Iran.
“If Iran is bombed, Iran’s reaction is a sure thing. They cannot sit idle, and what kind of reaction they will take is a big question,” said Abbas Bolurfrushan, president of the Iranian Business Council in Dubai.
U.S. at risk
Mirzai, the former Iranian diplomat, sketched out potential Iranian responses: cutting the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes; retaliation in Iraq, Afghanistan or Lebanon; attacks on U.S. targets in the gulf.
“There is a policy the Iranians have and they’ve repeated it often: The gulf is either safe for everyone or no one,” he said.
To contest Iran’s influence, the United States has sought to form an axis among Sunni Arab states it considers moderate: Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and smaller countries in the Gulf.
Israeli officials have spoken about a possible alignment of their country’s interests with those states to arrest both Iran’s influence and its nuclear program.
In November, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he would try to deepen ties with those states, some of which have yet to recognize Israel, in what Israeli analysts saw as a bid to create an anti-Iranian bloc.
But Zisser, of Tel Aviv University, cautioned that “all of these countries are not very strong, and they have their own problems.”
“Iran’s threat could do something to bring them together, but I would say that any alliance that comes out of it would be defensive in nature,” he said.
Destabilizing the region
Potentially more far-reaching is the sectarian tension that the struggle has ignited. In the Palestinian territories, Israeli officials say, mainly Shiite Iran has been successful in influencing the political situation, particularly by funding the Sunnis in the Hamas-led government.
In Lebanon, posters have gone up in Sunni neighborhoods portraying leaders united by little other than their Sunni sectarian affiliation: Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, Rafiq al-Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister killed in a 2005 car bombing, and Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas who was assassinated by Israel in 2004.
“You are in heaven,” the poster reads, “and those who killed you will go to hell.”
“We have a sectarian civil war in Iraq now, and this is drawing sectarian lines through the region,” said Dakhil. “This is the most important, the most dangerous ramification of the American war in Iraq.”