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Iran Is Bush’s Target in Lebanon

Times Staff Writer

To President Bush, the conflict in Lebanon is more than a campaign by Israel to protect its citizens from Hezbollah missiles. Instead, it is “a moment of opportunity” for the United States -- with the most important target not Hezbollah or even neighboring Syria, but distant Iran.

When Bush talks publicly about the 18-day-old campaign, he often makes the point of blaming Iran, one of Hezbollah’s main sponsors. Aides say that’s a reflection of what he has said in private: that Israel’s battle with Hezbollah is merely part of a larger struggle between the U.S. and Iran for influence across the Middle East.

“The stakes are larger than just Lebanon,” the president told reporters Friday after meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. “The root cause of the problem is you’ve got Hezbollah that is armed and willing to fire rockets into Israel; a Hezbollah ... that I firmly believe is backed by Iran and encouraged by Iran.”

He added: “I also believe that Iran would like to exert additional influence in the region. A theocracy would like to spread its influence, using surrogates.... And so, for the sake of long-term stability, we’ve got to deal with this issue now.”

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Another U.S. official, who spoke about the Middle East turmoil on condition of anonymity, was more blunt. In Lebanon, the United States and Iran “are conducting a proxy war,” he said, with Israel fighting for one side and Hezbollah for the other.

“It is in our interest to see Hezbollah defeated,” he said.

The administration’s view of the conflict’s larger stakes are a major reason why U.S. diplomacy in the crisis has not been devoted to achieving an early cease-fire, as was often the case in earlier clashes between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Instead, the White House has decided that the United States’ strategic objective is the same as Israel’s -- a decisive defeat for Hezbollah and, by extension, Iran.

Just as the White House hoped its 2003 invasion of Iraq would transform the entire Middle East, Bush and his aides openly voice hopes that an Israeli victory in Lebanon can change the political balance in a much wider area, striking a major blow against Iran and the terrorist groups it has sponsored.

“This is a moment of intense conflict ... yet our aim is to turn it into a moment of opportunity and a chance for broader change in the region,” Bush said Friday.

“Instead of having foreign policies based upon trying to create a sense of stability, we have a foreign policy that addresses the root causes of violence and instability,” he added.

Or, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put it a week earlier, describing the administration’s goals in ambitious terms: “What we’re seeing here, in a sense, is ... the birth pangs of a new Middle East. And whatever we do, we have to be certain that we’re pushing forward to the new Middle East, not going back to the old one.”

For that to occur, Israel still has to win on the battlefield -- and that hasn’t happened yet. But administration officials said they were confident that Israel, supported openly or tacitly by the U.S. and other Western nations, would achieve most of its military objectives.

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“I don’t think that Israel will falter,” said the State Department’s counter-terrorism chief, Henry A. Crumpton.

But some U.S. officials acknowledge privately that even if Israel succeeds militarily, turning its campaign into a major advance for democracy in Lebanon and other Arab countries will be easier said than done.

At the outset of the Israeli campaign, many non-Shiite Lebanese blamed Hezbollah for starting a needless war; but as Israeli attacks have killed Lebanese civilians and damaged Lebanon’s economy, Lebanese politicians of almost all stripes have rallied, at least rhetorically, to Hezbollah’s defense.

And just as in Iraq, long-term success in Lebanon will require a long postwar process of building democratic institutions and preventing militias such as Hezbollah from rising again. “This is just the start of a long, complex chapter,” Crumpton told reporters.

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A list of difficult goals faces Rice and other diplomats who have been charged with bringing the conflict to an end: disarming Hezbollah, whose popularity has been founded on its guerrillas’ willingness to stand and fight against Israel; bolstering Lebanon’s shaky government and its small, untested army; and assembling a multinational peacekeeping force to provide security for southern Lebanon’s ravaged villages and prevent terrorists from crossing Israel’s northern border.

Even as they want to see Hezbollah defeated, Bush and his aides also want Lebanon to emerge from the crisis with its democratically elected government stronger. So the U.S. has urged Israel to avoid attacking targets that aren’t directly related to the campaign against Hezbollah, advice Israel appears to be following.

But behind the diplomatic detail, in the minds of Bush and his closest aides, will be a larger issue: making sure Hezbollah and its sponsors, Syria and Iran, come out of the crisis with their power diminished, not enhanced.

“Clearly, Iran has a goal of strengthening Hezbollah and gaining further influence” in the Middle East, Crumpton said. “And I think they see this [conflict] as a means of doing so.”

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He added, “We have got to take this on either now or later -- and I think we’ve got to take this on now.”

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, most of the American public’s attention on what Bush deemed a “global war on terror” has focused on Al Qaeda, the Sunni Muslim organization that carried out the assaults on New York and Washington.

But U.S. counter-terrorism officials have long considered Hezbollah, a Shiite Muslim group organized and funded partly by Iran, just as dangerous -- and perhaps even more so.

Richard L. Armitage, the No. 2 official in the State Department during Bush’s first term, once suggested that Hezbollah might be “the A-team of terrorists” for its discipline and expertise, and that “Al Qaeda is actually the B-team,” Crumpton said.

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U.S. intelligence analysts have considered Hezbollah a major threat since at least 1983, when they believe the group organized and carried out the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut that killed 241 people. Between 1983 and 1994, U.S. officials charge, Hezbollah carried out a series of kidnappings, bombings and at least one airliner hijacking; Hezbollah denies the charges. And U.S. officials believe Hezbollah provided training to Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda forces when they were based in Sudan in the 1990s.

In recent years, Hezbollah has focused on solidifying its political and military role in Lebanon, where it controls a large swath of territory and holds a block of seats in the nation’s parliament. But U.S. officials say the organization still retains the capability of mounting terrorist attacks abroad.

“I would not rule out them striking American interests anywhere in the world, and I can’t rule it out here” either, Crumpton said.

As for Iran, Bush and his aides have long viewed Tehran’s Islamic regime as a threat to the United States because of its pursuit of nuclear technology and its hostility toward Israel, as well as its history of support for terrorism. Bush named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as members of an “axis of evil” -- unfriendly nations that the United States accused of seeking weapons of mass destruction.

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The president and his aides have said they want to encourage Iranians to change their form of government, and some of their conservative supporters have called for a more explicit policy of “regime change.”

Earlier this year, in his State of the Union address, Bush called Iran “a nation now held hostage by a small clerical elite that is isolating and repressing its people.”

Officials say Bush believes Iran wants to create a “Shia crescent” -- an arc of Iranianinfluenced regimes stretching from the Persian Gulf through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, countries with significant Shiite Muslim populations that would make Tehran a major power broker in the Middle East.

One official said the president had exploited such fears in recent weeks in conversations with the Sunni Muslim leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan as a way of urging them to withhold support from Hezbollah in the Lebanon conflict.

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In Iraq, Iran has supported radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whose followers have fought both U.S. troops and Iraqi government security forces.

Among the Palestinians, Iran has supported Hamas, the radical Sunni Muslim movement that won a majority in the Palestinian parliament this year and rejects Israel’s right to exist.

U.S. officials say that by supporting Hamas, Iran has obstructed American efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- and has made itself an important player in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some U.S. officials say they suspect, but cannot prove, that Iran encouraged Hezbollah’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, an operation that provoked the Israeli campaign, in hopes of distracting the United States and its allies from their drive to win United Nations sanctions against Tehran for its nuclear activities.

As diplomatic efforts intensify to end the conflict in Lebanon, U.S. officials say that one of their main goals is to make sure Hezbollah does not snatch a political victory from the jaws of military defeat.

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In the past, they note, Hezbollah and other guerrilla forces had often suffered battlefield setbacks at the hands of Israel’s army but still were able to boost their political standing merely by claiming that they fought bravely in the defense of Arab interests against a stronger foe. In fact, Hezbollah is already making that claim.

That’s one reason the Bush administration has refused to press Israel for an early cease-fire before Hezbollah is soundly defeated.

“The administration has not called for an immediate cease-fire because the only way to do that would be to turn to Israel and say, ‘Stop,’ and that would be a huge victory for Hezbollah,” said Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said it was important to the administration that Hezbollah be seen by other Arabs as having been defeated.

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“If a terrorist organization is able to destabilize a government and is able to declare victory,” he said, “what that does is it sends a message to terrorist organizations throughout the region that they’ve got a green light.”

Times staff writers Tyler Marshall and Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.


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