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Journalists Discuss Increasing Shi’a influence in Middle East


The war in Lebanon, which was triggered by the Hezbollah militia’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, is entering its fifth week with Israeli troops and Hezbollah locked in fierce battles on several fronts. Hezbollah, Lebanon’s radical Shi’a faction, is backed by Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomenei recently pledged support to Lebanon in the fight against Israel and called on the nations of the Middle East to unite.

Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said earlier this week that the current conflict is not simply between Israel and Hezbollah forces in Lebanon. He said Iran is using Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria as part of a grand design to dominate the Middle East and introduce a Shi’a Muslim hegemony into the region. Moreover, that’s the way most people in Israel and in the U.S. administration view the problem, says Israeli journalist Ori Nir of the Forward. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, he says that events in Lebanon in the past three weeks have convinced him that Iran has been using Hezbollah as a “front for a much broader confrontation” between Sunnis and Shi’as.

Babak Yektafar, editor of the Persian-language magazine Washington Prism, agrees that other factors – such as religious and historical tensions between the mostly Sunni Arabs of the region and the largely Shi’a Persians of Iran – contribute to the problem, but it is the competition for political power that drives the two groups.

Initially Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt were critical of Hezbollah for having provoked the war in Lebanon. But, Jordanian reporter Rana Sabbagh says their populations are now more influenced by their sympathy for the suffering of the Lebanese civilians than by their Sunni Muslim identity. Ms. Sabbagh notes that Jordan’s King Abdullah II was the first Arab head of state to warn of a Shi’a crescent, extending from Tehran to Beirut. However, she says, the King never meant to talk about Shi’ism “as a faith but as a center of power.” Rana Sabbagh suggests, for example, that Iran is “running the show” in Iraq and is also an “active player” in the Arab-Israeli conflict. She says that Hezbollah and Hamas are the “local proxies” of Iran and Syria in Lebanon and Palestine. And, she adds, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and Kuwait have become “victims of this new crescent” as well.

Palestinian-Canadian journalist Jane Arraf, who was CNN’s former Baghdad bureau chief, says fear of Shi’a influence has always worried Sunni Arab leaders. But Iraq’s sectarian situation is more nuanced than many people realize. And she calls “excessive Iranian political influence” one of the most serious “unintended consequences” of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. She warns that people need to remember that Iraqi Shi’as are Arab, and although they have a religious affinity with Iranian Shi’as, the two groups are “quite different,” which serves to limit how much support Iran actually has in Iraq. But, from a Sunni perspective, Rana Sabbah says, the Arab world is now divided into two camps – an “Iranian-led camp” and an “American-led camp.” She says the Arabs need to speak with a unified voice, which says, “We want a unified Iraq, not an Iraq broken up along sectarian lines. We want the Lebanese government to assume full responsibility over a sovereign Lebanon. And we want Hezbollah to pull out of the south and become a political party and not a military party.” But most important, Rana Sabbagh says, there needs to be “movement on the bigger problem” – the Arab-Israeli conflict.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.

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