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Options for U.S. Limited As Mideast Crises Spread

By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Bush administration suddenly faces three rapidly expanding crises in the Middle East, but it has limited options to defuse tensions in any of them anytime soon, U.S. officials and Middle East experts say.

Israel has sent troops into Gaza and Lebanon over three captured soldiers -- one held by Hamas in Gaza and two seized yesterday by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The United States and its allies set a collision course with Iran over its nuclear program. And there is mounting concern that Iraq's sectarian violence is crossing the threshold to a full-blown civil war.

A common thread in the three crises is Iran -- for its support of the two Islamist groups, its alleged funding and arming of Iraqi militias and extremist groups, and its refusal to give a final response to the Western package of incentives designed to prevent it from converting a peaceful energy program into one to develop nuclear weapons.

"There seems to be a hand in each one of these -- Iran's and Syria's," Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch said in a telephone interview from Amman, Jordan. "Today does cross a threshold because, as Hezbollah has now said, this action was planned. It was intended to escalate and widen the battleground."

U.S. tensions with Iran have not been this high -- or covered so many issues -- since the 1979-1981 hostage crisis, said Shaul Bakhash, an Iran expert at George Mason University. Shortly after Iran's 1979 revolution, 52 Americans were seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held hostage for 444 days.

The common tactic in the three crises appears to be daring defiance by Iran and its allies, particularly in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza, to gain position at the same time they are facing mounting pressures. "Here you have actors who are basically pariahs who are trying to find their way back in. They're doing it the way they know best -- brinksmanship," said Robert Malley, director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East program. "They want to change the rules of the game."

Because of the simultaneous crises, the Bush administration is poised to use the Group of Eight summit of industrialized nations in Moscow this week to rally support against Iran as a bad actor unwilling to embrace the standards of the international community, U.S. officials say. The United States is also pushing for a new resolution at the United Nations next week on Iran's failure to suspend uranium enrichment.

The White House said it is holding Iran and Syria responsible for the flare-up along Lebanon's border because of their long-standing support for Hezbollah. It charged that the seizure of two soldiers was deliberately timed to "exacerbate already high tensions in the region and sow further violence.

"Hezbollah's actions are not in the interest of the Lebanese people, whose welfare should not be held hostage to the interests of the Syrian and Iranian regimes," a statement said.

Iran's role differs in each crisis, as do the issues.

The most pressing is the new violence along Israel's borders. Overnight, the confrontation with Hamas mushroomed dramatically into a confrontation that includes Hezbollah, Lebanon, Syria and Iran. Iran is using Hezbollah to improve its own leverage, analysts say.

"The Iranians think they have a regional role," Bakhash said. "If the Israelis are beating up the Palestinians in Gaza, they may feel compelled as supporters of the Palestinian cause to have Hezbollah take a stand at this difficult moment." Hezbollah was founded in 1982 with the funding, arms and training by Iranian Revolutionary Guards dispatched to Lebanon after Israel's invasion.

On the nuclear issue, Tehran has taken a tough position on its right to enrich uranium for its civilian energy program, which is allowed under terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but which can be subverted for a nuclear weapon. Iran says that the United States particularly wants it to surrender this right to undermine its long-term development as a modern nation. But several Western nations are convinced Iran is intent on procuring a nuclear weapons capability.

In Iraq, Iran has fostered sectarianism by aiding fellow Shiites in powerful militias, including renegade cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's militia and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq's Badr Brigades, which were originally trained in Iran, U.S. officials say. The militias have defied calls to disarm, undermining the control of the new government and preventing smaller Sunni militias from cooperating as well. U.S. officials say Iran's goal is to prevent stability and a U.S. victory in Iraq that might lead to pressure on Iran.

The Bush administration has few ways of directly pressuring Iran on any of the three fronts. "They have sanctioned themselves out of leverage on Iran," Malley said. "They have cornered themselves out of a lack of influence on any of the parties that are driving this -- Hezbollah, Hamas, Syria and Iran. Counseling restraint or condemning actions is pretty meager when you think of the influence the United States should be wielding."

The United States reached out to Arab allies -- Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- to weigh in with Syria and, through Damascus, to Iran. In Paris for talks on Iran's nuclear program, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called on all sides to "act with restraint." She also talked to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

But the U.S. options stand in stark contrast to the U.S.-brokered cease-fires in 1993 and 1996 between Israel and Hezbollah, via Syria.

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