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Accusations stacking up against cocky Iran

Sydney Morning Herald | July 17, 2006
By Paul McGeough

ANALYSIS

THE Iranian leadership was doing a fine line in rhetoric, until Israel and the US weighed in with specific allegations that Tehran had troops on the ground in Lebanon and that it was an Iranian-built missile that struck an Israeli warship off Beirut.

Accusing Israel of adopting the tactics that Hitler had used against the Jews, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad taunted the Israelis - cockily claiming Israel would not dare to strike Tehran, and warning that any attack on Syria would provoke a "crushing response" from the Islamic world.

At Friday prayers in Tehran, Ayatollah Emami Kashani, one of the country's most senior clerics, claimed Koranic justification for the Hezbollah action that sparked the crisis.

"The capturing of two Zionist soldiers by Hezbollah [to bargain] for the release of so many Palestinian and Lebanese imprisoned in Zionist jails is a legal, legitimate, conscientious, common and flawless act," he said.

But when Israel claimed about 100 Iranian soldiers in Lebanon had helped launch an Iranian-made missile that had struck the warship Spear, the Iranian embassy in Beirut issued a flat denial.

An Israeli commander, Brigadier-General Ido Nehushtan, claimed a Chinese-designed, Iranian-made C-80 radar-guided missile had been used, saying: "We see this as very profound fingerprint of Iranian involvement in Hezbollah."

US intelligence agencies also claimed Iran might have supplied some of its more lethal and up-to-date weapons to Hezbollah.

The tightly controlled Iranian media is full of hectoring anti-US commentary, but the religious-controlled Tehran regime is tight-lipped on the detail of its regional adventurism. Hezbollah's Tehran office curtly declined requests for an interview.

There is rising anxiety in the Sunni-dominated Arab world that Shiite Tehran is making a bid for a new regional balance of power between itself and Israel.

Some analysts argue that Tehran redoubled its nuclear efforts as a shield against the US, after witnessing the fate of Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.

Since being singled out, along with Iraq and North Korea, as one of President George Bush's "axis-of-evil" targets, Tehran has stepped up its rhetorical and material support for anti-US forces in the region - the radical Shiite parties in Iraq, in Bashar al-Assad's Syrian Government, and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

Hezbollah has previously used rockets with only a 20-kilometre range. However, Israeli claims that Iran has provided longer-range weapons may have been confirmed by Hezbollah's much deeper strikes into Israel last week, and some analysts say it follows that Hezbollah could not have used the rockets without Tehran's permission.

But in an email analysis at the weekend, Anthony Cordesman, of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, urged caution, lest suspicion and limited facts become full-blown conspiracies.

He writes: "US intelligence has not seen evidence that Iran dominated or controlled the Hezbollah, but for most of the Hezbollah's existence it has seen Iran as a major source of money and weapons."

Iranian forces in Lebanon had been reduced in recent years, but Dr Cordesman says Iran transferred "massive numbers of rockets to Hezbollah", and acknowledges they may have been long range. However, he downplays the lethal force of the weapons and doubts Tehran would have provided anything more powerful or accurate.

But, as a part of the regional power-struggle, Iran is signalling loudly to the Sunni Arab and Muslim world that it is ready to facilitate direct strikes on Israel and indirectly at its US sponsor.

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