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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 July 2006, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
Doubts over 'new Middle East'
By Frank Gardner
BBC security correspondent

Hezbollah flags and a picture of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah
Hassan Nasrallah's Hezbollah has the respect of many Arabs

Somewhere in the archives of the BBC's Jerusalem bureau there is a videotaped news report from five years ago, marked "Lebanon Border Flashpoint".

On the tape a 30-something reporter strides purposefully over the thistle-strewn hills of northern Galilee and waves a theatrical arm towards Lebanon to the north, and Syria to the east.

"This contested region," he declares portentously, "is where some in the Israeli military believe the next Middle East war will begin."

The reporter was me. I was up on that border to report on the latest clashes between Israeli troops and their implacable foe, Hezbollah. Plus ca change, you might think.

But today, say America and Israel, it's different. Things just cannot be allowed to go back to the way they were, with a heavily-armed Arab militia lurking just across Israel's border.

'New Middle East'

There's talk in Washington of "a new Middle East", a place where the "moderate Arab majority" refuse to allow the region to be plunged into conflict by supposed troublemakers like Hezbollah and its allies, Syria and Iran.

So is that realistic, or is it wishful thinking?

America's critics have certainly been quick to dismiss the idea of a new Middle East which they say is drawn up along lines that suit the US and Israel.

Although Hezbollah is a Shia organisation it has won huge respect amongst many Arabs at street level, as the only fighting force prepared to take on the might of the Israeli military

This week the Palestinian foreign ministry, itself reeling from Israeli air strikes, said the new plan was based on the illusion that the existing political forces in the region could be removed.

"What new Middle East?" snorted Lebanon's information minister. He said US proposals for a reformed Middle East had only led to death and destruction in Iraq.

And in Iran, the hardline press has even turned the idea on its head. "Hezbollah has disturbed all the West's equations in the region," trumpeted the conservative newspaper Resalat, adding: "Hezbollah is talking about a new Middle East - in which there is no room for Israel!"

The close relationship between Iran, Syria and the Shia Lebanese militia Hezbollah has prompted some to question whether Tehran was perhaps behind the latest flare-up of violence.

Repeated conflict

Just before it began, Iran was coming under heavy international pressure to suspend its uranium enrichment programme, suspected of leading to a nuclear bomb.

But Western intelligence sources say they have no hard evidence - either from informants or from intercepted communications - that Iran instructed Hezbollah to seize the two Israeli soldiers this month, and thence trigger the conflict in Lebanon.

But Iran, which would like to see Israel eliminated as a state, is clearly delighted that an Arab-Israeli conflict is once more back at the centre of world attention.

Iran helped establish Hezbollah back in 1982 in an effort to export its Islamic Revolution into the Arab world.

Since then Hezbollah has achieved some notoriety in pioneering the suicide truck bomb, blowing up US targets in Beirut and kidnapping Western hostages.

A map of Lebanon, Syria and Israel
Lebanon, Syria and Israel have always been uneasy neighbours

Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen have trained Hezbollah's Lebanese fighters and Iranian missiles are supplied to them through Syria.

Although Hezbollah is a Shia organisation, it has won huge respect amongst many Arabs at street level, as the only fighting force prepared to take on the might of the Israeli military.

They widely credit it with driving Israeli forces out of south Lebanon six years ago.

Political chessboard

This week, the yellow flags of Hezbollah have been fluttering in the streets of Gaza, while portraits of its bearded, turbaned and bespectacled leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, are on public display in Damascus souk.

All this is very annoying for the moderate, pro-Western governments in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt.

They don't like violent change and they don't like Hezbollah, they don't like Iran's current regime and they are wary of a new axis of Shia power stretching across the region, from Iran, through Iraq, to Lebanon.

The last thing those pro-Western governments wanted to see was a resurgent guerrilla force upsetting the political chessboard in the region.

Their rulers are all too aware of Hezbollah's appeal to their own populations, who grumble privately that this Lebanese militia has done more than their own timid governments have to confront what they call "Israeli aggression".

A Fajr-3 missile being fired by Iran
Iran's rockets and uranium enrichment have alarmed the West

So a recent editorial in the pro-government Saudi newspaper al-Riyadh insisted that Hezbollah's "adventurous stance" had been confronted by the "reasonable stance" of a number of Arab countries.

"What is needed urgently now," said the editorial, "is an Arab strategic plan to confront the Iranian strategic plan." It was, it said, a matter of life and death.

So behind every conflict in this troubled region there lurk so many layers of conflicting interests, national, religious, and ethnic, sometimes working in concert, mostly not.

Navigating one's way through this labyrinth is always a challenge for any journalist in the Middle East.

If you don't take someone's side then they invariably think you're against them.

But it's a challenge I've always relished, and one I'm just about to experience again as I fly back to the Middle East this afternoon to report once more for the BBC.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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