Published on
the Los Angeles Times

Mideast Has an Old Cold War Look

Borzou Daragahi

BEIRUT - In the Gaza Strip, Islamists aided by Iran finish off forces loyal to Washington's ally, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

To the east, in Iraq and Afghanistan, governments attempt to prevent their nations from turning into proxy battlegrounds. 0705 03

In the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, U.S. and Iranian warships nearly bump up against one another.

The new Middle East is starting to look like the old Cold War, with a familiar script and slightly altered cast.

The confrontation between the United States and Iran, which overlays and drives much of the strife afflicting the Middle East, crystallizes most visibly here in Lebanon, where hundreds of Iran-backed Hezbollah militants remain camped out in tents next door to the lavishly restored Ottoman-era Grand Serail, home to the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"The police barricades between the tent city and the prime minister - that's Checkpoint Charlie," said Rami G. Khouri, a journalist and a scholar at the American University of Beirut, referring to the crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

"This is the front line of the new regional global confrontation," Khouri said. "It is exactly like the Cold War in the combination of tools and means that people are using on both sides to confront each other."

At stake is political, military and cultural dominion over the volatile oil-rich Middle East and influence over the direction of the Muslim world.

The Bush administration says it is pushing for secular values, free trade and democracy. It is joined by allies in Europe and those Sunni Arab oligarchs in the Middle East who are unsettled by the challenge to the status quo posed by the rise of Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation.

Newly radicalized Iran presses for values and power structures based on Islam and tradition. Its allies and proxies include powerful grass-roots Islamic organizations such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as much of the government in Baghdad, and the Syrian regime in Damascus. All but the government in Baghdad are longtime official pariahs to the United States.

It is a complicated conflict with many features of the 45-year Cold War, including the use of military and political surrogates, aggressive diplomacy, economic pressure, competing propaganda outlets and a looking-glass war waged by intelligence services.

In some areas, the rivals cooperate, though at arm's length, much as the Soviet Union and the United States did in some parts of the world. Iran and the United States find themselves allied in support of the governments in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and Baghdad as bulwarks against Sunni Muslim insurgents.

And as in the Cold War, the conflict between Tehran and Washington sometimes merges with long-standing local disputes. The fight in Lebanon between pro- and anti-Syria forces dates to the 19th century, but the influence of Iran and the United States has served as a catalyst to the conflict. Similarly, animosities between Arabs and Persians, and between Shiites and Sunnis, predate the United States, which now casts a large shadow over the region. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict predates the Islamic Republic, but has become a key battleground in the hostility between the United States and Iran.

Contest has been lopsided

Unlike the Cold War, the contest between Iran and the United States has been lopsided. Once a client state of the United States under the shah, Iran began its bid to shake off American dominance in 1979, when Islamic radicals toppled pro-Western Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and established a theocracy. The revolution's effect on oil prices exposed the vulnerability of the United States.

Iran immediately sought to export its revolution, but was stymied by a coalition of Western powers and Sunni Arab elites who were rattled by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's pledge to establish Islamic governments throughout the region.

The U.S. and its allies supported Iraq, then a Sunni-dominated dictatorship, in its war against Iran in the 1980s. The Iranians nearly defeated Iraq, and soon rebuilt and expanded their industrial and political might.

Throughout the 1990s, Iran and the U.S. confronted each other quietly. But that has changed in the last five years, with ambitious hard-liners taking the reins of power in both Tehran and Washington. President Bush has dubbed Iran a member of the "axis of evil" and has openly sought "regime change" in Tehran, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has defied the West over nuclear research and humiliated Britain by briefly detaining 15 of its sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. and Iran now openly joust on multiple fronts.

While Karen Hughes, U.S. undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, has promoted American values across the Muslim world, Iran's once-reclusive diplomatic corps has wooed allies and whipped up anti-American sentiment.


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Manouchehr Mottaki, Iran's foreign minister, this year courted Arabs at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. And Mottaki and Ali Larijani, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, have taken the world stage in the conflict with the West over Iran's nuclear research program.

Stoking Arab fears

The U.S. stokes Arab fears of a nuclear-armed Iran. But Iran, which now broadcasts its state-controlled news globally in Arabic and English, has adeptly used footage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the war in Iraq to enhance its self-defined image as the defender of Islam against a crusading West.

"What is happening in Baghdad and Gaza is affecting the way the nations of the Middle East are looking at Americans," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a Sunni Arab politician in Iraq.

Both sides have used economic pressure and brinkmanship. The United States has won U.N. Security Council economic sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program, barred two Iranian banks from doing business with the United States, and implied a potential readiness to attack Iran militarily.

Iran, meanwhile, has threatened to send the price of oil skyrocketing by blocking the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40% of the world's petroleum passes.

"I think we're going to see a further stepping up," said Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "We're sending the Iranians a pretty clear message, saying, 'Look, you're not king of the hill.' "

Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan find themselves caught in the middle, occasionally pleading with both sides to stop using their countries as battlegrounds.

"Lebanon is being used as a chip, a trading chip," Siniora fumed this year after Iran and Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, met to work out the future of his country. "But who said that the Lebanese want their lands to become the battleground for [others'] conflict?"

In Iraq, the Shiite majority leans culturally toward Iran, but the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad depends on U.S. firepower to stem civil war.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, Iran's position is complex. Tehran prefers the U.S.-backed government of President Hamid Karzai over the toppled Taliban, an extremist Sunni regime that was backed by Pakistan. At the same time, Taliban successes against American forces serve Tehran's interest in getting the United States out of a neighboring state.

As they did in the U.S.-Soviet standoff, regional proxy wars take a steady toll. The U.S. believes Iran is supplying some of the more deadly weapons used by Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents in Iraq and by Taliban militias in Afghanistan.

In Iraq, the United States brandishes the threat of the Mujahedin Khalq, or People's Holy Warriors, an armed Iranian opposition group in exile there. Iran supplies Hezbollah with rockets and other weapons while the United States arms the Lebanese government. Farther south, in the Palestinian territories, the United States favors the Fatah faction in the fighting that has pitted the more secular group against the Islamic Hamas movement, which is backed by Iran.

On the espionage front, events hearken back to the KGB-CIA rivalry. U.S. forces in Iraq have detained five Iranian diplomats who Washington believes are spies, and Tehran has rounded up visiting Iranian American scholars within its borders and charged them with endangering its national security.

Iran accused the U.S. of complicity in the disappearance of Ali Reza Asgari, a former Revolutionary Guard commander who vanished during a business trip to Turkey. The U.S. has needled Iran about the disappearance of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent on a business trip to the Iranian island of Kish.

Baghdad's Shiite-dominated government, meanwhile, has established an intelligence apparatus parallel to the Iraqi National Intelligence Service, which answers to U.S. intelligence officials in Baghdad's protected Green Zone.

If the U.S. and Iran come to blows, it probably will be in the Persian Gulf's cramped waterways, where U.S. warships daily encounter the gunships of the Revolutionary Guard and each side practices war games.

"Even if it's just posturing, the danger is the posturing on both sides could produce a spark that could set off the fires of war," said Joseph Cirincione, a nonproliferation expert at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank.

"There are Iranians helping Iraqi militias," he said. "There are probably U.S. special forces operating in Iran. Both sides are provoking each other. One of these days these provocations are going to spark a firefight."

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times |

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