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From the moment last Wednesday when Hizbollah fighters seized two Israeli soldiers, the Bush administration immediately held Iran and Syria responsible.
The White House mounted a systematic campaign on the US airwaves to get that message across while seeking to put pressure on the G8 summit to unite in confronting those two governments.
That it has become the received wisdom in the US that Iran was directing Hizbollah to deflect international pressure on Tehran’s nuclear programme, is testimony to the Bush administration’s ability to dominate the discourse in the mainstream media. The crisis has also demonstrated how it can rely on the support of the US foreign policy establishment – Democrat and Republican – when it comes to matters of vital national interest to the US and Israel.
Challenging these assertions, Iranian analysts and activists in the US – both those for and against the Iranian theocracy – are warning that such simplified arguments may not only be completely erroneous, but will also complicate the process of calming down the crisis while raising the chances of a direct conflict between Iran and the US.
Akbar Ganji, Iran’s most prominent dissident who recently emerged from six years in prison, began a symbolic hunger strike outside the UN headquarters in New York at the weekend to press for the release of all political prisoners in Iran. But he also said his mission to the US was to prevent the spread of war.
“There are two voices in this – one is the voice of warmongers, terrorists and fundamentalists. The other is the voice of pacifists, pro-democracy activists and freedom-seekers,” he told the FT.
“Unfortunately, the Christian-Jewish-Islamic fundamentalists are stirring up this situation and setting [Lebanon] ablaze,” he said. “They should all be isolated.”
Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a former reformist member of the Iranian parliament who was barred from seeking re-election by hardliners in 2004, said Iran knew that direct confrontation between Hizbollah and Israel would not benefit Hizbollah.
“For this reason I don’t think Iran is provoking this situation or wants it to be intensified . . . Iran has taken a pragmatic approach in its foreign policy and does not want to get into a serious confrontation with Israel,” argued Ms Haghighatjoo, a visiting scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
She concedes Iran has influence over Hizbollah, but says exercising that will become more difficult as Tehran becomes the focus of US pressure.
Ervand Abrahamian, history professor at the City University of New York, doubts Iran has sufficient influence over Hizbollah to calm the situation.
“Hizbollah’s leaders are not the types to take orders from elsewhere,” he says. Mr Abrahamian believes the Bush administration’s main objective remains “regime change”, and does not rule out US air strikes.
An Iranian expert, who is close to Tehran’s thinking and did not wish to be identified, told the FT that Iran was not looking for a crisis in Lebanon at a critical moment in the nuclear diplomacy. He said Iran had received signals from members of the UN Security Council last week that it would be given more time to consider the west’s proposals.
It was inconceivable that Iran had ordered Hizbollah to take Israeli soldiers prisoner. Iran wanted a negotiated way out of the nuclear stand-off, he said. He argued that Israel’s fierce retaliation for the abduction of the soldiers strengthened the hands of US hardliners who did not want such a settlement.
Meanwhile, American neoconservatives are calling for swift military action against Iran.
William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, says Iran and Syria are enemies of both the US and Israel. “We have been too weak, and have allowed ourselves to be perceived as weak,” he wrote, urging the US to consider strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities. “Why wait?” he said.
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