The leaders of Iran and Syria said Tuesday that Hezbollah defeated Israel, with the Iranian president telling a cheering crowd that “God’s promises have come true” and the Syrian chief saying U.S. plans for reshaping the Middle East have been ruined.
Tehran and Damascus may be the biggest winners from the 34 days of fighting in Lebanon — buoyed by the ability of ally Hezbollah to stand up to Israel’s punishing assaults and by the new, widespread popularity of the guerrillas across the Middle East.
Hezbollah didn’t come out of the war unscathed as a fighting force, and its domination of southern Lebanon and attacks on Israel are likely to be hampered by the deployment of the Lebanese army and international troops in that territory.
But the Shiite Muslim movement appears to have been strengthened inside Lebanon thanks to broadened support across the country’s ethnic and religious communities.
Syria and Iran both ridiculed U.S. hopes for eliminating the guerrillas and belittled Israel’s high-tech military as useless against Hezbollah.
“The Middle East they (the Americans) aspire to ... has become an illusion,” Syrian President Bashar Assad said in Damascus.
“We tell them (Israelis) that after tasting humiliation in the latest battles, your weapons are not going to protect you — not your planes, or missiles, or even your nuclear bombs ... The future generations in the Arab world will find a way to defeat Israel,” Assad added.
‘Banner of victory’
A few hours later, Iran’s leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saluted Hezbollah for hoisting “the banner of victory” over Israel.
“God’s promises have come true,” Ahmadinejad told a huge crowd in Arbadil in northwestern Iran. “On one side, it’s corrupt powers of the criminal U.S. and Britain and the Zionists ... with modern bombs and planes. And on the other side is a group of pious youth relying on God.”
Analysts said both countries now feel stronger in their own individual disputes with the West and that the alliance of their hard-line governments is stronger now, in contrast to the Mideast bloc of pro-U.S. governments.
“Both Syria and Iran have achieved a political victory,” said Dawood al-Shirian, a Saudi Arabian who hosts a talk show on Dubai television. “Lebanon once again has paid a heavy price, and Syria and Iran have once again taken credit.”
Stronger hand for Tehran?
Iran may also feel its bargaining hand has become stronger as it approaches the Aug. 31 deadline set by the U.N. Security Council for a halt in Iranian uranium enrichment. Iran says it will announce Aug. 22 its reply to a package of incentives offered by the U.S. and Europe aimed at enticing it to suspend enrichment.
Mostly Shiite, Persian Iran may also try to ride the increased popularity of the Shiite Arabs of Hezbollah to make inroads with the Arab world’s Sunni Muslims. The popularity of Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has grown even among Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, whose strict school of Islam considers Shiites as heretics.
Arab countries — particularly in the Persian Gulf — are wary of Iran and its nuclear program, and the stronger that Iran is seen to be, the more nervous its regional rivals get.
Syria, in turn, may feel it can play a more influential role after years of isolation. It had been under even more international pressure since last year’s assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which was widely blamed on Syria despite its denials.
Arab, U.S. and Western diplomats generally snubbed Syria during negotiations over halting the Lebanon fighting, but they may have to turn to the Syrian regime in the next big tussle, the issue of disarming Hezbollah.
Possible opening for Syria
A strong Hezbollah gives Syria a window to regain influence it lost in Lebanon last year when international pressure forced it to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after a 29-year presence.
In his speech, Assad lashed out at Arab regimes that criticized Hezbollah for capturing two Israeli soldiers July 12 and setting off the war. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan — all U.S. allies — opposed Hezbollah’s actions at the start of the conflict.
“We do not ask anyone to fight with us or for us ... But he should at least not adopt the enemy’s views,” Assad said.
Oqab Sakr, a Lebanese analyst, said Assad’s remarks were tantamount to “a final divorce from the Arab regimes and a full marriage with Iran.”
Egypt and Saudi Arabia are already pushing back. Saudi King Abdullah met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and underlined that the U.N. cease-fire resolution, which calls for disarming Hezbollah, be implemented.
A front page editorial in a state-run Egyptian newspaper derided Assad’s speech — a rare overt criticism by one Arab government of another. Al-Gomhuria daily scoffed at Assad, saying he was celebrating “a victory scored by others.”
“You should be prepared now for political and economic pressure put on you because of this speech,” it said.