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

"It was necessary to create an enemy to justify the failure of the American occupation in Iraq," Talal Salman, the editor-in-chief of as-Safir, a Lebanese newspaper, wrote in a column this month. "So to protect ourselves against the coming of the wolf, we bring the foreign fleets that fill our lands, skies and seas."

Iranian rivalry with its Sunni Arab neighbors is centuries old, but as with most conflicts in the Middle East, its modern contours are shaped by politics and interests.

Iran has found itself strengthened almost by default, first with the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to Iran's east, which ousted the Taliban rulers against whom it almost went to war in the 1990s, and then to its west, with the American ouster of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, against whom it fought an eight-year war in the 1980s.

Arab rulers allied with the United States issued stark warnings. Jordan's King Abdullah in 2005 spoke darkly of a Shiite crescent that would stretch from Iran, through Iraq's Shiite Arab majority, to Lebanon, where Shiites make up the largest single community. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt suggested last year that Shiites in the Arab world were more loyal to Iran than to their own countries. And in a rare interview, published Saturday, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia suggested that Iran, although he did not name the country, was trying to convert Sunni Arabs to Shiism. "The majority of Sunni Muslims will never change their faith," he told al-Siyassah, a Kuwaiti newspaper.

Across the region, Iran has begun to exert influence on fronts as diverse as its allies: the formerly exiled Shiite parties in Iraq and their militias; Hezbollah, a Lebanese group formed with Iranian patronage after Israel's 1982 invasion; and the cash-strapped Sunni Muslim movement of Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

"I disagree with Iranian policy, but you have to give the Iranians credit," said Abdullah al-Shayji, a political science professor and head of Kuwait University's American Studies Unit. "You have to appreciate that they have an agenda, they're planning for it, they seize the opportunity, they see an American weakness and they are capitalizing on it."

A Helping Hand

In Beirut's southern suburbs, a Hezbollah stronghold, a banner hangs near a bridge wrecked by Israeli strikes last summer: "The Zionist enemy destroys, the Islamic Republic of Iran builds." Even before the 33-day war ended, Iran had provided Hezbollah with $150 million to begin rebuilding, some of it going to victims in $10,000 bundles of crisp U.S. currency, according to a Shiite politician who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"You want me to give you my opinion? Honestly?" asked Hajj Hassan Sbeiti, a 44-year-old merchant, his face breaking into a wry smile. "If you say hello to me, you probably like me. If you say hello to me and ask what I need, you're a friend. If you say hello to me, ask what I need and put money in my hand, then you're going to be my brother."

In Iraq, U.S. officials say Iran is providing Shiite militias with sophisticated projectiles capable of penetrating U.S. armored vehicles and backing those forces in a gathering civil war against Sunni Arabs. One commander of the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia that U.S. military officials now identify as the greatest security threat in Iraq, said that however much he might dislike Iran, he was eagerly anticipating the delivery of 50 rocket-propelled grenades to Basra.

But no less influential are the ties that Iran has deepened with the three main Shiite groups in Iraq, some of whose leaders spent years in exile in Iran and are now nominally allied with the United States, and the burgeoning economic relationship between the two countries.

The extent of Iran's engagement in the Arab world, and the rising sectarianism that has accompanied the Iranian ascendance, troubles Arabs who already worry about growing tension between the United States and Iran.

"If Iran is bombed, Iran's reaction is a sure thing. They cannot sit idle, and what kind of reaction they will take is a big question," said Abbas Bolurfrushan, the president of the Iranian Business Council in Dubai, a booming city-state on the Gulf that is part of the United Arab Emirates, where an estimated 400,000 Iranians live and work.


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