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What the Israeli-Hezbollah War Means for Iran

By Ian Bremmer

Now that market experts interested in oil prices are persuaded that Israel's war on Hezbollah will not spill into Syria or Iran, their attention has shifted 900 miles to the east and three weeks into the future.

Tehran has promised to respond by Aug. 22 to a Western-sponsored incentive package intended to halt development of its nuclear program. We can expect the regime to offer either a conditional pledge to temporarily suspend uranium enrichment or a new burst of belligerence. Either way, most analysts believe, Aug. 22 will be a red-letter day for energy prices.

But the bloodshed in Lebanon and Iran's nuclear program are hardly unrelated. Israel's conflict with Hezbollah has, in fact, raised the stakes at the nuclear bargaining table, contributing to the diplomatic momentum that on July 31 produced a Security Council resolution -- the first legally binding mandate to suspend enrichment that Tehran has faced. The war in Lebanon has helped the Iranian nuclear issue become the center of gravity in a wider battle for dominance in the region.

On the eve of her recent visit to the region, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserted that the conflict in Lebanon should be understood as part of the "birth pangs of a new Middle East." But what kind of Middle East will emerge from this war? One in which Iran, Syria and their militant proxies hold greater regional leverage? Or one in which the United States, Israel and moderate Arab governments coordinate a more effective political response to the metastasis of regional radicalism? Which group now holds the winning hand?

The answers to these questions will emerge over time. But one thing seems increasingly clear: Iran believes Israel has given it a trump card -- and an opportunity to reassert its right to a nuclear program. The war in Lebanon provides the Iranian government with two things it wants: It has enabled Iran, via its Hezbollah allies, to demonstrate an ability to punch above its weight and beyond its borders. And it has allowed Iran to again argue that Israel can only attack its neighbors with impunity because it holds a nuclear monopoly in the region.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has already captured international attention by vilifying Israel and arguing that it should be "wiped from the map" of the Middle East. Images beamed daily across the Muslim world of Israeli rockets falling on Lebanese civilians have sent a variety of Muslim leaders scrambling for opportunities to pose as leaders of the resistance to Israeli aggression. By countering Israel's nuclear capability with a program of its own, Iran believes it is well-placed to stake its claim. Most importantly, Israel's war helps the Iranian regime rally much-needed popular support at home. The country's ruling conservative clerics, guardians of the sacred values of a revolution that nearly 70 percent of Iran's population is too young to remember, have seized on development of a nuclear program as a unifying symbol of the country's independence and growing international clout.

Unsurprisingly then, Iran has seized the opportunity it believes Israel has provided to reassert its right to continue to enrich uranium, whatever the Security Council demands. Iran's government warned on July 21 that if the Security Council puts away the carrots and breaks out the sticks, Iran would have no choice but to change its nuclear policies.

No one in Tehran has yet explained exactly what that means, but it could be an early indicator that Iran might withdraw its signature from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. If it does, international tensions surrounding the standoff are certain to intensify.

Iran firmly believes it holds all the cards, despite the new Security Council resolution. But the virtual certainty in Washington and Tel Aviv that only a blessing from Tehran allowed Hezbollah to attack Israel further diminishes the already low likelihood that the West will simply fold its hand. In short, Tehran's intransigence has bolstered U.S. and Israeli resolve that it is Iran's nuclear program that should be wiped from the map -- by any means necessary. Imagine, some argue, how much more dangerous the war in Lebanon might be if Iran had a nuclear weapon.

The exasperation with Iran has spread to Europe. In mid-July, Ahmadinejad fired off a 10-page letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Though the German government refuses to release the full text of the letter, it reportedly includes complaints over Zionist crimes and the usual incendiary references to the Holocaust -- though no mention of Iran's nuclear intentions. Though he spared Merkel some of the invective he included in an 18-page letter to President George W. Bush in May, the answer he received was similarly blunt. "The letter does not merit a response," the German chancellor responded.

Should Tehran ultimately reject the West's offer of incentives, international support for sanctions may well undermine efforts by Russia and China to minimize Western pressure on Iran. Though the July 31 resolution won Russian and Chinese backing only after the more aggressive language was omitted, they did support its call for Iran to suspend enrichment by the end of August. If Iran refuses and punitive action finally comes to a Security Council vote, Moscow and Beijing may feel compelled to abstain, clearing the way for increasingly coercive diplomacy. That's how Israel's war on Hezbollah has raised the stakes in the region and increases the momentum that, over the coming months, may drive the United States, Israel and Iran toward a dangerous showdown.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy and the author of "The J Curve: A New Way to Understand Why Nations Rise and Fall,". He can be reached via e-mail at research@eurasiagroup.net.

(C) 2006 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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