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Free elections in Iraq. Syria withdrawing from Lebanon. Libya abandoning its weapons of mass destruction programs. Egypt amending its constitution to allow direct, multiparty elections. Kuwait permitting women to vote and assume office. These were said to be among the many signs that America’s invasion of Iraq and subsequent toppling of Saddam Hussein led to change in the Middle East.
The region’s political landscape is changing—but not in the way Washington expected.
The Iraqi people are struggling with daily acts of terrorism, as civil war looms. The terrorist organization Hamas was voted into office to head the fledgling Palestinian government. Israel’s recent failure to remove Hezbollah has empowered the Jewish nation’s enemies and helped to further unify the Arab world. And Iran has emerged as a formidable regional player.
In its Middle East program report, Chatham House, a British think tank, asserts, “The great problem facing the U.S. is that Iran has superseded it as the most influential power in Iraq.” Iran trains and equips the Shiite militias, with members numbering in the hundreds of thousands, to destabilize Iraq.
The report continues, “…this affords [Iran] a key role in Iraq’s future. Iran is also a prominent presence in its other war-torn neighbor with close social ties, Afghanistan. The Sunni Arab states of Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf are wary of Iran yet feel compelled by its strength to maintain largely cordial relations while Iran embarrasses their Western-leaning governments through its stance against the U.S.” (Iran, Its Neighbours and the Regional Crises).
Animosity between Washington and Tehran has existed since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and has worsened ever since. Many Iranian government leaders are veterans of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, and have not forgotten that the U.S. backed Saddam Hussein in what is today considered the longest conventional war of the 20th century. Washington supplied Iraq with satellite intelligence and tolerated the use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops. Today, tensions have heightened due to the presence of 135,000 American troops in Iraq—in effect, in Iran’s backyard.
Nicholas Burns, undersecretary for political affairs at the U.S. State Department, said, “An Iran in possession of nuclear weapons is unthinkable for all who value security and peace” (Gannett).
But Iran, refuting claims of being a rogue state, maintains it only wants nuclear power for peaceful purposes. “We do not need nuclear weapons,” a former Iranian president said to the United Nations. “We do not want nuclear weapons” (Mainichi Daily News).
The United Nations gave Tehran an August 31st deadline to end its uranium enrichment program, which the Iranian government ignored. Voices among the nation’s public also feel that gaining nuclear technology is Iran’s “legal right.”
In light of this continuing defiance, some have said that for the UN to remain credible, it must heed Washington’s call for discussing sanctions against Iran. However, Security Council members China and Russia, along with Germany and France, have sizable business interests in Iran. This, some assert, explains why Moscow and Beijing have urged patience.
Just days before the UN deadline, the Iranian president inaugurated a new phase of a heavy water production plant, which can be used to produce nuclear weapons. The U.S. military estimates that Iran is just five to eight years away from achieving this.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s current president, even challenged U.S. President George W. Bush to a live televised debate. Claiming that the United States and the United Kingdom were “the origin of all disturbances in the world,” Mr. Ahmadinejad told reporters that Iran and other nations “are against America’s practices in managing the world” (BBC News).
Meanwhile, the Israeli government—which bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 to stop Iraq from producing an atomic weapon—stated it will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power.
Most Americans no longer support the war in Iraq. Israel did not gain a decisive win against the terrorist group Hezbollah, emboldening that group and other enemies. The United Nations seems powerless.
With a number of parties declaring Hezbollah (which Tehran supplies with funds and arms) the victor in the recent Mid-East war, Iran has established itself as a regional powerhouse—and has done so without nuclear weapons. Many wonder what role Tehran will play if it joins the “nuclear club.”