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U.S.-Iran rivalry has a familiar look

Like the Cold War, the nations' struggle across the Mideast makes use of proxies, propaganda and economic pressure.

July 05, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BEIRUT — In the Gaza Strip, Islamists aided by Iran finish off forces loyal to Washington's ally, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

To the east, in Iraq and Afghanistan, governments attempt to prevent their nations from turning into proxy battlegrounds.

In the warm waters of the Persian Gulf, U.S. and Iranian warships nearly bump up against one another.

The new Middle East is starting to look like the old Cold War, with a familiar script and slightly altered cast.

The confrontation between the United States and Iran, which overlays and drives much of the strife afflicting the Middle East, crystallizes most visibly here in Lebanon, where hundreds of Iran-backed Hezbollah militants remain camped out in tents next door to the lavishly restored Ottoman-era Grand Serail, home to the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.

"The police barricades between the tent city and the prime minister -- that's Checkpoint Charlie," said Rami G. Khouri, a journalist and a scholar at the American University of Beirut, referring to the crossing between East and West Berlin during the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States.

"This is the front line of the new regional global confrontation," Khouri said. "It is exactly like the Cold War in the combination of tools and means that people are using on both sides to confront each other."

At stake is political, military and cultural dominion over the volatile oil-rich Middle East and influence over the direction of the Muslim world.

The Bush administration says it is pushing for secular values, free trade and democracy. It is joined by allies in Europe and those Sunni Arab oligarchs in the Middle East who are unsettled by the challenge to the status quo posed by the rise of Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation.

Newly radicalized Iran presses for values and power structures based on Islam and tradition. Its allies and proxies include powerful grass-roots Islamic organizations such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as much of the government in Baghdad, and the Syrian regime in Damascus. All but the government in Baghdad are longtime official pariahs to the United States.

It is a complicated conflict with many features of the 45-year Cold War, including the use of military and political surrogates, aggressive diplomacy, economic pressure, competing propaganda outlets and a looking-glass war waged by intelligence services.

In some areas, the rivals cooperate, though at arm's length, much as the Soviet Union and the United States did in some parts of the world. Iran and the United States find themselves allied in support of the governments in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and Baghdad as bulwarks against Sunni Muslim insurgents.

And as in the Cold War, the conflict between Tehran and Washington sometimes merges with long-standing local disputes. The fight in Lebanon between pro- and anti-Syria forces dates to the 19th century, but the influence of Iran and the United States has served as a catalyst to the conflict. Similarly, animosities between Arabs and Persians, and between Shiites and Sunnis, predate the United States, which now casts a large shadow over the region. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict predates the Islamic Republic, but has become a key battleground in the hostility between the United States and Iran.

Contest has been lopsided

Unlike the Cold War, the contest between Iran and the United States has been lopsided. Once a client state of the United States under the shah, Iran began its bid to shake off American dominance in 1979, when Islamic radicals toppled pro-Western Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi and established a theocracy. The revolution's effect on oil prices exposed the vulnerability of the United States.

Iran immediately sought to export its revolution, but was stymied by a coalition of Western powers and Sunni Arab elites who were rattled by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's pledge to establish Islamic governments throughout the region.

The U.S. and its allies supported Iraq, then a Sunni-dominated dictatorship, in its war against Iran in the 1980s. The Iranians nearly defeated Iraq, and soon rebuilt and expanded their industrial and political might.

Throughout the 1990s, Iran and the U.S. confronted each other quietly. But that has changed in the last five years, with ambitious hard-liners taking the reins of power in both Tehran and Washington. President Bush has dubbed Iran a member of the "axis of evil" and has openly sought "regime change" in Tehran, while Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has defied the West over nuclear research and humiliated Britain by briefly detaining 15 of its sailors and marines in the Persian Gulf.

The U.S. and Iran now openly joust on multiple fronts.

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