Monday, January 05, 2009

Iran's President Has Much at Stake in Gaza Outcome

As Israel gambles on a potentially messy ground invasion of Hamas-controlled Gaza, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also has a lot at stake in the outcome of the fighting.

Mr. Ahmadinejad's history of criticizing Israel, and his recent strong condemnation of the Gaza assault, has helped garner a new measure of popular respect across the region. That comes as more moderate Arab states, especially Egypt, draw sharp rebuke for failing to act forcefully enough to stop the violence.

Condemnation of the Israeli offensive has also become a rallying cry for thousands of Iranians. If the ground invasion drags on, popular, anti-Israel outpourings in Tehran -- on display during a large demonstration Friday -- could serve Mr. Ahmadinejad as a convenient distraction. He faces mounting criticism of his economic policies ahead of presidential elections later this year.

Last week, Mr. Ahmadinejad introduced a series of economic reforms aimed at reducing expensive fuel and other subsidies. Economists say the move is necessary to relieve mounting fiscal pressure on Tehran amid sharply falling oil prices. But the measures, if they're enacted, are expected to be deeply unpopular among everyday Iranians.

Large demonstrations in Tehran, like the anti-Israel protests staged recently, are tightly controlled by the Iranian leadership. Some analysts also suggested recent demonstrations -- including the brief storming of the British diplomatic compound in Tehran Tuesday -- could be a subtle way for hard-line supporters of Mr. Ahmadinejad to send a message to more moderate politicians considering a presidential challenge to Mr. Ahmadinejad.

In Tehran on Friday, a crowd of about 6,000 marched from prayers at Tehran University to Palestine Square, chanting "Death to Israel" and "Death to America."

Hardliners "want to warn competitors" that they still command strong popular support, said Saeed Laylaz, a prominent Iranian economist in Tehran.

Region-wide, the fighting represents the latest chapter in a competition for influence in the Middle East between moderate, Western-aligned Arab leaders on one side, and Iran and Syria on the other. Key to Tehran's recent, regional ambitions is its backing of Hamas and the Lebanese political and militant group Hezbollah.

Earlier this year, Hezbollah took to the streets of Beirut in a show of force that ultimately won the group a bigger say in a new power-sharing government with Western-leaning politicians. The move boosted Tehran's standing considerably as a regional power broker, at the expense of the U.S., which designates Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist organizations.

Western governments accuse Tehran of funneling cash and weapons to Hamas, which won Palestinian-wide elections in 2006 and took control of Gaza in a bloody sweep in 2007. Iran has denied arming Hamas.

With Gazan borders sealed by Egypt and Israel, Tehran can offer little real assistance to militants battling Israeli tanks and troops. But if Hamas manages to bog down Israeli troops during the invasion -- as Hezbollah fighters did in southern Lebanon in 2006 -- Tehran stands to gain once again.

Similarly, if Israel delivers a crushing blow to Hamas, Iranian officials could see one of their most effective irritants against Washington and Israel significantly degraded. Nine days of pounding aerial bombardments have already destroyed much of Hamas's governing infrastructure, including police stations and security posts.

"I don't think the Iranian government is happy with the situation," said one Tehran-based political analyst. "To them Hamas is one of their deterrents. This is one of the things they threaten the West with."

As Western officials conferred with Israeli officials in recent days about the terms of a possible ceasefire arrangement, Iranian officials met with Syrian counterparts and Hamas representatives. Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran's powerful Supreme National Security Council, met Syrian president Bashar Assad Saturday, according to Syria's state news agency. He met the day before with Hamas's leader-in-exile, Khaled Meshal, who resides in Damascus

Iran's President Has Much at Stake in Gaza Outcome
Wall Street Journal