From Beirut to Teheran

Hizbullah's takeover could spell regional escalation, expert tells 'Post'.

iran war games 224 88 (photo credit: AP)
iran war games 224 88
(photo credit: AP)
Hizbullah's recent takeover in West Beirut and its attacks in the central Lebanese mountains could lead to regional escalation and a broader confrontation with Iran if efforts to resolve the crisis are unsuccessful, a Lebanese expert told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. "Regionally, this has a huge impact," said Nadim Shehadi, an associate fellow at the Middle East Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House) in London. "It's equivalent to an Iranian attack on Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. That's how it would be interpreted." The brief military victory of Hizbullah, which is backed by Iran and Syria, is perceived by many as an Iranian offensive on US and Saudi interests in the region. The battle is part of the larger regional confrontation between the United States, Iran and their allies that has fronts in Iraq, the Palestinian territories and Afghanistan. What happens next depends on the Arab and international response to the Lebanese crisis, Shehadi said. "What can be the Arab and international response? We'll have to wait and see," said Shehadi, a Lebanese-born political expert. "It could lead to a regional escalation or it could lead to an Iranian victory if at the end of the day... Hizbullah can translate [its military victory] into a political gain." The conflict may be contained, something an Arab League delegation in Beirut is trying to accomplish this week. Or it could develop into a regional confrontation involving Iran and the US and its allies, which are already fighting in Iraq, he said. Thirdly, Lebanon could become a battleground between these players and deteriorate once again into civil war. In addition, Shehadi said, Lebanon could be attacked by Israel - a threat that preoccupies the Lebanese. While Israel considers Hizbullah a major threat to its security, it is the issue of "how best to protect oneself against Israel" that lies at the heart of the conflict between the US-backed Lebanese government and the Hizbullah-led opposition forces, he said. While the government advocates relying on the international community and the UN to protect against Israeli military action, Hizbullah and its allies promote taking up arms and becoming an "Islamic resistance movement." The events of the last week "will certainly dent Hizbullah's popularity," because it turned its guns on its own people rather than on Israel, Shehadi added. More than 80 people have been killed following Prime Minister Fuad Saniora's decision last week to fire Beirut's airport security chief - he is associated with Hizbullah - and outlaw the Shi'ite group's communication network. (The cabinet is expected to revoke these decisions.) Arab analysts have noted that the United States and its allies were shocked by the scale of the events in Lebanon and that they have yet to present a significant response. Moderate states such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and certain Gulf states are particularly afraid of Iran's sway in the region, said Abdul Alim Mohammed, assistant to the director at the Egyptian think tank Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Iran's influence in Iraq and its support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories and of Hizbullah in Lebanon concern many Arab states who fear such conflicts will spill into their own nations. Since 2001, America's actions in the region in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan have weakened local nationalism and thus strengthened Iranian influence in the region, Mohammed said. But he believes the Lebanese crisis will not escalate into a wider conflict, arguing that the international community - including the Arab world, the European Union, America and Israel - "will not allow Hizbullah to control Lebanon." But many in the Egyptian media and street appear to be pessimistic about the current efforts of the Arab League to resolve the crisis, said Gabriel Rosenbaum, director of the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo. "People do not think they can help a lot, judging by experience" of what the Arab League has been able to accomplish previously, he said. "Lebanon is a complicated case and they know a solution will not be easy."