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Last Updated: Monday, 24 July 2006, 17:05 GMT 18:05 UK
Iran's role in crisis still murky
By Mohammad Tabaar
BBC World Service, Washington

Israeli tank
Israel has deployed overwhelming force against Hezbollah
Since the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah erupted nearly two weeks ago, many pundits and US officials have blamed Iran for the crisis.

From the New York Times and Washington Post to Haaretz in Israel, commentators have warned of an Iranian trap to provoke Israel and the United States.

An American TV commentator called Iran "the spookiest country" and claimed that Iran "orchestrated the whole thing" in order to put pressure on the G8 summit and divert attention from Tehran's nuclear program.

But is it really an Iranian trap?

Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the situation was not that clear-cut.

I do not believe that Sheikh Nasrallah had any idea the Israeli response would be as ferocious and intense as it has been
Geoffrey Kemp,
Nixon Center security expert

"Whenever we have tensions with Iran over an issue like Iraq or nuclear weapons, people tend to end up with very clear, decisive conspiracy theories," he said.

And, indeed, he argued Iran has been trying to exploit any opportunity against Israel.

However, he added, it was simply unrealistic to think "that Iran somehow controls Hezbollah, that Syria doesn't need to be considered, that Hezbollah has no decision-making authority or capability on its own".

Careful balance

For the past two weeks, Iranian leaders have trod a fine line, continuing to support Hezbollah strongly, yet also indicating that they are not seeking a direct military confrontation with Israel.

In a recent statement, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Israel had "pushed the button of its own destruction" by attacking Lebanon.

File picture of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Iran's official statements tread a cautious line
He has also warned that if Israel attacks Syria it will face "a staunch response" from the Muslim world.

Nevertheless, the chairman of Iran's military joint chiefs of staff, Maj Gen Sayyed Hassan Firuzabadi, said on Saturday that Iran would "never militarily" join the current Middle East fighting.

Israel's use of overwhelming force against targets in Lebanon during this conflict has led some experts to argue that the crisis was not set in motion by Iran but is, rather, a pre-emptive trap by Israel to ensnare Iran.

Trita Parsi, a Middle East specialist at the Johns Hopkins University, said that following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Israel sees Iran as its main strategic rival in the Middle East and is looking for an excuse to weaken its new geo-political enemy.

"Israel knows that it is now much stronger than Iran, but the current balance [of power] between Iran and Israel will probably shift in Iran's favour" if Tehran achieves nuclear capability - not even necessarily nuclear weapons - within the next few years, he said.

Mr Parsi contends that the current conflict could be seen as Israel's pre-emptive strike against Iran: "From Iran's perspective, it is better to confront Israel in the future. But from Israel's point of view, this can be seen as pre-emption."

Simple miscalculation?

Geoffrey Kemp, an international security expert at the Nixon Center, agreed that the Middle East balance of power played a role in the conflict, but said there were also larger issues involved.

Poster of Hezbollah leader Nasrallah in Syria
Hezbollah's leader may not have expected such a response
"I certainly believe that that's one item on Israel's agenda, but it is not the primary item," he said of the balance of power, but added that there was a more immediate objective for Israel.

"The real Israeli agenda is to defeat Hezbollah to the point where the Lebanese government can exercise control over its border."

That would weaken both Iran and Syria, he said.

"My view is that Hezbollah miscalculated. I do not believe that Sheikh Nasrallah had any idea the Israeli response would be as ferocious and intense as it has been."

But whether this latest conflict is an Iranian trap, Israeli pre-emption, or simply Hezbollah's miscalculation, there is one thing that is clear: The one who instigated this crisis is not necessarily the one who can control it - or put an end to it.

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