August 16, 2006

August 16, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

Triumphant Iran's Next Moves

Ignore Israel's and Hezbollah's boastful claims of victory in their bitter, but largely inconclusive war. The real winner of the month-long conflict is neither - it's Iran.

As Hezbollah's sugar daddy, Iran clearly profited from the death and destruction. In fact, though criticized at the conflict's outset for spurring Hezbollah into provoking a war, in the end, Iran actually burnished its image and elevated its standing in the Middle East - and the Muslim world.

Result? An increasingly confident Iran is going to be one tough customer to deal with in the days and months ahead.

Think about it: Using its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, Iran was able to lash out at arch-enemy Israel, causing the Israeli Defense Forces to fight a two-front war in Gaza and Lebanon.

Tehran also benefits from the severe damage done to America's public image in the Muslim world, where Washington was (inaccurately) seen as supporting - and directing - the destruction of not Hezbollah, but Lebanon.

Iran was able to divert a lot (but not all) of world attention from its still-active nuclear (weapons) program, too, giving it plenty of breathing room to continue to enrich uranium for nukes with impunity.

The Israel-Hezbollah war also put any prospects of advancing the Middle East peace process between Israel and the Palestinians - a concept the mullahs have long opposed - into a deep freeze.

The conflict unsteadied global oil markets, pushing prices to record levels. The price spike has been filling Tehran's coffers and keeping the poorly managed Iranian economy afloat.

All in all, surveying the strategic landscape in the aftermath of the war, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and senior cleric Ayatollah Ali Khamenei must be darned pleased with themselves.

So what does all this mean for the future? More trouble.

You can bet that Tehran isn't going to cave to the international community on ending uranium enrichment - or its nuclear program - when it's scheduled to respond to the U.N. on Aug. 31.

This means we'll soon be facing another crisis as the United States, France and Britain square off against China and Russia at the U.N. Security Council over hitting Iran with economic sanctions.

After the slog in Lebanon, you can bet Iran no longer fears an air strike by the previously invincible IDF - and Tehran won't worry about a dustup with the United States, considering the challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tehran will also deepen its political and security relationship with Damascus, continuing to use Syria to smuggle arms and other aid to Hezbollah in the aftermath of the "cease-fire."

Further, feeling it can act without consequence, Tehran will step up its campaign against U.S. forces in Iraq, using Shia militias and Iranian paramilitary forces. It will expand its influence in Afghanistan, too.

Awash in profits from $70-plus barrels of oil, Iran will continue to underwrite the Hamas-led Palestinian government and help keep Hezbollah humming along as "a state within a state." The pricey energy market will also allow Iran to improve its conventional military. It signed a $1 billion arms contract with Russia this year; look for more Russian and Chinese arms sales.

Flush from success in Lebanon, Iran might feel comfortable exporting its fundamentalism to other parts of the Muslim world, including Saudi Arabia and the pro-Western Gulf states with restive Shia populations.

And how about Ahmadinejad's budding friendship with Venezuelan troublemaker President Hugo Chavez?

It's easy to conclude that the outcome of this war resulted in losers - and bigger losers. But, in reality, some, including Iran, have benefited from the carnage and chaos.

As a result, we're faced with a "pumped-up" Iran that will likely use its new-found standing to be even more aggressive, and intransigent, than ever in pursuing its interests at our expense.

Heritage Foundation senior fellow Peter Brookes is the author of: "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States." peterbrookes@heritage.org

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the New York Post