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Last Updated: Saturday, 12 August 2006, 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK
Lebanon exposes wider fault lines
By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

One of the reasons that the bitter fighting between Israel and Hezbollah has been so difficult to halt is that it is a symptom of much deeper fault-lines in the region.

Many analysts see it as part of a wider conflict that pits the United States against Iran and Syria. But the crisis has also highlighted some fundamental shifts within the Arab world.

Washington is Israel's close ally. Iran is one of Hezbollah's major backers.

Burnt out car in Lebanon (12 Aug)
The month-long conflict has seen bitter fighting
Inevitably then, this crisis serves to accentuate tensions between Washington and Tehran. Locked in a stand-off over Iran's nuclear programme, the summer months were expected to be dominated by a rising crescendo of pressure on Tehran to constrain its nuclear ambitions or, possibly, to face some serious international pressure.

Instead, international diplomacy has been forced to confront the fighting across the Israeli-Lebanese border. The controversy surrounding Iran's nuclear programme, if not forgotten, has certainly been pushed to the sidelines.

A great deal of ink has already been used trying to ascertain why Hezbollah actually mounted the raid into Israel where it seized the two Israeli soldiers.

Was this, some argue, an operation ordered by Tehran precisely to divert attention from the nuclear controversy? There is no hard evidence either way. But the relationship between the Iranians and Hezbollah is close and long-standing.

This battle of wills involving Washington, Tehran and Damascus looks set to continue

Inevitably then, the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has taken on a broader significance in the region. This is certainly the way the Iranians see it and though they express it in different terms, it is much the way the Bush administration sees it as well.

Viewed from this perspective it is in effect a proxy war between Iran and the United States. Syria too, another supporter of Hezbollah, is cast by Washington and Israel as another villain of the piece.

And whatever happens in Lebanon, this battle of wills involving Washington, Tehran and Damascus looks set to continue for some time to come.

Above all it is a battle for wider influence in the region. The modern Arab nation state is widely seen as being in crisis, battered by economic and social problems.

Israeli soldiers carry a wounded comrade (12 Aug)
Hundreds have been killed and wounded in the fighting
Undemocratic and in some cases unrepresentative regimes are struggling to confront the rising aspirations of their citizens.

Paradoxically, the Bush administration's deconstruction of Iraq and its effort to spread democracy through the region have further weakened the legitimacy of such governments.

The rising political force in the region - whether in the Palestinian territories or in southern Iraq - is Islamism. The diplomatic debate in Washington is largely focused on the wisdom of engaging Syria and Iran.

Arab resistance

Critics of the Bush administration's policies stress the need to talk with your enemies. Mr Bush's supporters argue that this is simply a species of wishful thinking - efforts, they say, have been made and failed. Engagement, they argue, is no guarantee of results.

But while criticising the Bush administration's approach in detail, there is also wider unease about its broader thrust. Is a grand vision like spreading democracy an aspiration or a policy?

Take a country like Egypt for example, a major recipient of US aid, with huge social and economic problems. In political terms it represents one vast pressure-cooker with no apparent release.

What is the appropriate US policy? Should it be to bolster the present regime or to seek rapid and fundamental change? Neither is necessarily a path to US popularity. And half-measures could simply weaken a regime on which the US still counts for support.

The Arab world is at a crucial moment in its history. Successive UN development reports written by Arab sociologists and economists have charted the parameters of a burgeoning crisis.

Some scholars now argue that the real power-brokers in the region are no longer the great Arab players - Egypt, Syria or Iraq - but increasingly the three non-Arab powers, Israel, Iran and Turkey.

This brings us back to the Lebanon crisis, for it is ironic that it is Shia Iran - through its proxy Hezbollah - that is now seen by many in the region as being the standard-bearer for Arab resistance against Israel.

Indeed, the rise of the Shia, amplified by Washington's democratic experiment in Iraq, is deeply troubling the regions traditional Sunni Arab powers.

The crisis in Lebanon has highlighted fundamental shifts in the Middle East which promise to reshape the region for many years to come.

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