With Iran Ascendant, U.S. Is Seen at Fault

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By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 30, 2007

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Kuwait rarely rebuffs its ally, the United States, partly out of gratitude for the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But in October it reneged on a pledge to send three military observers to an American-led naval exercise in the Gulf, according to U.S. officials and Kuwaiti analysts.

"We understood," a State Department official said. "The Kuwaitis were being careful not to antagonize the Iranians."

Four years after the United States invaded Iraq, in part to transform the Middle East, Iran is ascendant, many in the region view the Americans in retreat, and Arab countries, their own feelings of weakness accentuated, are awash in sharpening sectarian currents that many blame the United States for exacerbating.

Iran has deepened its relationship with Palestinian Islamic groups, assuming a financial role once filled by Gulf Arab states, in moves it sees as defensive and the United States views as aggressive. In Lebanon and Iraq, Iran is fighting proxy battles against the United States with funds, arms and ideology. And in the vacuum created by the U.S. overthrow of Iranian foes in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is exerting a power and prestige that recalls the heady days of the 1979 Islamic revolution, when Iranian clerics led the toppling of a U.S.-backed government.

"The United States is the first to be blamed for the rise of Iranian influence in the Middle East," said Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi writer and academic. "There is one thing important about the ascendance of Iran here. It does not reflect a real change in Iranian capabilities, economic or political. It's more a reflection of the failures on the part of the U.S. and its Arab allies in the region."

Added Eyal Zisser, head of the Middle Eastern and African Studies Department at Tel Aviv University in Israel: "After the whole investment in democracy in the region, the West is losing, and Iran is winning."

The United States has signaled a more aggressive posture toward Iran. President Bush on Friday defended a Pentagon program to kill or capture Iranian operatives in Iraq. Vice President Cheney, in a Newsweek interview published Sunday, said the deployment of a second U.S. aircraft carrier task force to the Persian Gulf was intended to signal to the region that the United States is "working with friends and allies as well as the international organizations to deal with the Iranian threat."

And John D. Negroponte, outgoing director of national intelligence, told Congress this month that Iran's influence is growing across the region "in ways that go beyond the menace of its nuclear program."

Widespread Support

Iranian officials -- emboldened but uneasy over nuclear-armed neighbors in Israel and Pakistan and a U.S. military presence in the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan -- have warned that they would respond to an American attack on Iran's facilities.

"Iran's supporters are widespread -- they're in Iraq, they're in Afghanistan, they're everywhere. And you know, the American soldiers in the Middle East are hostages of Iran, in the situation where a war is imposed on it. They're literally in the hands of the Iranians," said Najaf Ali Mirzai, a former Iranian diplomat in Beirut who heads the Civilization Center for Iranian-Arab Studies. "The Iranians can target them wherever, and Patriot missiles aren't going to defend them and neither is anything else."

"Iran would suffer," he added, "but America would suffer more."

As that struggle deepens, many in the Arab world find themselves on the sidelines. They are increasingly anxious over worsening tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims across the Middle East, even as some accuse the United States of stoking that tension as a way to counter predominantly Shiite Iran. Fear of Iranian dominance is coupled, sometimes in the same conversation, with suspicion of U.S. intentions in confronting Iran.


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