TCS Daily

Iran Ascendant

By Michael Totten - December 7, 2006 12:00 AM

Now that the Democratic Party controls both houses of Congress, some kind of change in America's strategy in Iraq is probably coming. Most Americans think that's why the Republicans lost the election. Yet tinkering with the strategy, deploying more troops or fewer, or reaching out with diplomatic initiatives won't likely make much of a difference. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats seem to realize just how badly the American project of liberalization and stabilization in the Middle East is being sabotaged by Syria and even more so by Iran -- and not just in Iraq, but also in Lebanon and Kuwait.

Syria and Iran are preparing a hostile takeover of Lebanon as you read this, and they may well succeed. The ruthless brilliance of the Assad regime in Damascus is consistently underestimated by every capital in the world except for Beirut. Assad always gets what he wants, and he gets it without absorbing so much as a scratch.

To be sure, he lost Lebanon last year and his soldiers won't likely return. But promised to "break" the country if his troops were forced out. That's exactly what he did, too, when he played the middle man between Iran and Hezbollah and helped gin up another hot war with Israel.

According to Israeli intelligence, Syria and Iran have already replenished Hezbollah's arsenal stocks. The Party of God is reportedly more heavily armed now than they were before the July war. South Lebanon's rubble hasn't been cleared out of the way, yet the Syrian/Iranian/Hezbollah axis is already digging in for Round Two. This bloc all but owns Lebanon's foreign policy as it is, deciding when and with whom the country goes to war without feedback or accountability from Lebanon's people or government.

Now Hezbollah and its local allies Amal, Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, and the Syrian-appointed president Emile Lahoud have deliberately precipitated a political crisis that could bring down the elected and moderately pro-Western "March 14" government. The Sunni, Druze, and non-Aounist Christians are pushing back hard. Sporadic clashes have already broken out in the streets since August's cease-fire with Israel. The country reeks of sectarian conflict and impending civil war.

There is plenty of room in the Middle East for another "Iraq." And that's precisely what Syrian and Iranian saboteurs, assassins, and terrorists want. It was only fifteen years ago that Lebanon looked a lot like Iraq looks today. And Lebanon today looks a lot like its old self when the long war broke out in 1975.

Damascus and Tehran purposely foment chaos in both Lebanon and Iraq. Syria would never have acquired overlordship of Lebanon in the first place if it weren't for the civil war, which in truth was never just "civil." Syria was involved from the very beginning, first as an instigator, then as a combatant, and finally as an imperial "peacemaker."

Iran is plying a similar strategy in the Arab parts of Iraq. (Kurdistan is de-facto independent, and is beyond the reach of even Baghdad let alone Tehran.) Perhaps the most compelling (hindsight) objection to invading Iraq is that the US-led coalition softened the place up for Persian domination instead of rule by the Baath. Iran, through its proxy militias, has all but a lock on the Shia who make up 75 percent of the Arabs.

The Iranian mullahs know exactly what they are doing in Iraq because they learned how to do it in Lebanon. They first created and are right now maintaining what Abu Kais, a liberal Shia from South Lebanon, calls Shia farms. They radicalize the population against Sunni Muslims, Israel, and the West. Then they field proxy militias by providing ideology, weapons, cash, indoctrination, and training.

The first reason the rulers of Iran want to dominate Lebanon and Iraq is simple: because they can. Because a large swath of the Shia who live in those countries will let them. Another -- and this applies to Syria just as well -- is because a free democratic Lebanon and a free democratic Iraq are both potential foreign policy victories for the United States that would unambiguously threaten the prison guards of the old order.

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei doesn't even try to pretend they're doing anything else. "Lebanon will be the defeat point for Israel and America," he said last week. "Today it is (America's) policies in the world and the region that are bound to fail. These opportunities must be exploited with determination and action."

Even little Kuwait - moderate, stable, pro-Western Kuwait - is a target for Iranian plots. Last month a sleeper cell network with Iranian backing and training was discovered by police who say there may be thousands of members involved.

There is a lot of talk in the West and in the United Nations about Iran's development of nuclear weapons. Iranians are unlikely to start throwing nukes around the minute they get them. What will certainly happen if Iran gets the bomb is that the mullahs will be free to launch their subversive and domineering foreign adventures forever, or at least until they are thrown out of power internally.

Iraq may become a mere footnote compared with what might come next. Six Arab countries - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, the UAE, and Tunisia all now say they want nuclear weapons. Every Arab country has taken Israel's possession of nuclear weapons in stride. None seriously worries that the Israelis will nuke them or will actually try to take over their countries. A nuclear-armed Iran, though, genuinely frightens the Arab regimes.

You can feel Iran's power in the Middle East now. It depends on which country you're in and who you're talking to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. But it definitely is a thing. Tehran's power is feared and loathed everywhere by liberals and ruling elites. Hezbollah's "victory" against Israel is widely trumpeted even by many Sunnis on the "Arab street" -- as long as those Sunnis don't live with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Egyptian parents are naming their newborn children "Hezbollah." I've heard (but cannot verify) that some Sunnis in Syria are even converting to Shiism, the exhilaration is so high.

This is the new plot line in the Middle East, and foreign policy makers in both American political parties are going to have to reckon with it. Merely tweaking or reversing "the course" in Iraq will have little effect. Rolling back Tehran's nefarious meddling will not be enough to save Baghdad. It is, however, a necessary first step for both Iraq's sake and the region's.

Michael J. Totten's work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Time, Reason, the LA Weekly, Beirut's Daily Star, and the Australian edition of Newsweek. A collection of his dispatches from the Israeli/Hezbollah war was recently published by The New Pamphleteer. Visit his Web log at


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