It remains the $64,000 question in the current Middle East conflict? What is Iran up to, and why did it “suddenly” send its proxies from Hamas and Hizballah into war against Israel.

More than a few analysts, including Edward Luttwak, believe that Tehran is looking for a diversion. With a looming deadline to respond to western proposals on its nuclear programs, Iran decided to change the subject, by launching large-scale attacks against Israel. Presto, the international community is now focused on events in Israel and Lebanon, and Iran’s nuclear efforts are out of the spotlight, at least for now. This diversion may coincide with a particularly important phase of the nuclear program, which means that western ISR assets normally allocated for Iran are being diverted to cover the Levant region. Less coverage of Iranian targets means a greater probability that Iran could complete (or conceal) sensitive activities, with less chance of detection.

But Iran’s motivations go beyond creating a sideshow or diversion. By formenting conflict in the Levant, Tehran is attempting to affirm its credentials as the logical hegemon in the Persian Gulf region and beyond. Sending Hamas and Hizballah on their murderous missions, Iran is demonstrating its ability to launch potentially crippling attacks against Israel, something that massed Arab armies were unable to do in four major wars. And, by giving major weapons systems to the terrorists, Iran has created a mechanism for striking at the heart of Israel, a development that has serious security and psychological implications for the relatively new Olmert government.

More importantly, the Iranians (and, to a lesser extent, the Syrians) have seemingly placed themselves beyond Israel’s reach, at least for now. Despite western media hysteria about collateral damage, the IDF response (so far) has been somewhat restrained–a sharp contrast to the indiscriminate volleys of rockets aimed at civilian targets in Israel. While Jewish towns, cities and communities are under rocket attack, Damascus and Tehran remain unmolested. That (again) is a major departure from past conflicts, where cities like Haifa were relatively undisturbed, while the IDF rained destruction on terrorist targets outside Israeli borders. While Hizballah steadily loses military assets (and capabilities) in the field, its stature as an anti-Israeli force has grown. Ditto for the credentials of Tehran and Syria, for developing (and facilitating) a system for taking the fight to the Israelis.

This message is also being aimed at U.S. audiences. Earlier today, an Iranian official warned that his country’s Hizballah affiliate was prepared to launch terrorist strikes against U.S. and western targets around the world–while (presumably) the war continues in the Levant. His comments are designed to reinforce perceptions that U.S. (and Israeli) military power are incapable of dealing with the threat posed by radical Islam, in Iraq, in Lebanon, and even in our own backyard.

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That message, Iran believes, will produce a number of desired reactions. The western Europeans, who depend heavily on Iranian oil, will increase their calls for diplomacy, and prove even more willing to accomodate Tehran on its nuclear issues. The Iranians expect a similar reaction from their neighbors in the Persian Gulf who have little use for Tehran, or its terrorist proxies. But, the the gulf states sense weakness from the west, they will have little chance but to fall in line, and toe the Iranian line. Our gulf allies are clearly no fans of Ahmendinejad and his terrorist allies, but they need security assistance and guarantees in the event that Iran and its partners set their sights closer to home. And, with the U.S. preoccupied in Iraq, there is palpable regional concern about Washington’s willingness to deal decisively with Iran.

The current Middle East conflict is far from over, and the Israelis will largely crush Hizballah’s military capabilities in the coming days. But that triumph may be little more than a pyrric victory; as movements, Hizballah and Hamas will survive the destruction of their military arms, and (with help from Damascus and Tehran), live to regroup and fight another day. Meanwhile, Syria gets a measure of revenge against an implacable foe–without firing a shot, generating more support for Bashir Assad within his own Baathist movement, and securing his hold on power. That will ensure continuation of the Syrian conduit between Iran and Lebabnon, allowing Teharn to sustain its proxies in their war against Israel. That, in turn, will enhance Ahmedinejad’s stature both at home and abroad, as a force to be reckoned with, and one capable of striking Iran’s arch-enemies, with little fear of reprisal.

It’s quite a gambit for Iran, and so far, it appears to be working.

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