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Experts: Lebanon Crisis May Complicate Iran Nuclear Issue

The crisis in Lebanon is greatly complicated by the fact that Iran is a key backer of Hezbollah, which is locked in conflict with Israel. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas, who was recently in Iran, reports that the Lebanon conflict is already affecting the Iranian nuclear issue.

The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah exploded as an internal debate raged among Iran's decision makers about whether to accept a European offer on its nuclear program.

While there is no direct linkage between the two issues, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Sunday in Tehran that events in Lebanon and Palestine have, as he put it, "influenced our examination" of the European nuclear offer.

In fact, analysts say, the Israeli-Lebanon issue may have already scuttled any chance that Iran would accept the European offer of incentives to end uranium enrichment. Iran has said it will give its answer at the end of August, but recent Iranian media reports already suggest the answer will be "no." Sources close the Iranian leadership confirm that inclination.

Middle East scholar Trita Parsi, the author of a recent book on the tangled relationships between Iran, the United States, and Israel, says the Israeli attacks on Lebanon and its fragile democracy may have reinforced the views of the hardliners in Iran's leadership on the nuclear issue.

"The signal that is sending to the people of the region is that a friendship with the United States and becoming a democracy does not necessarily at all help the security of that specific country," Parsi said. "And the conclusion that, unfortunately, that many people may draw - and this may have happened in Iran as well - is that ultimately you need to have indigenous protection, protective systems, of which obviously a nuclear deterrence could be one of them."

Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says the conflict may also harden U.N. Security Council members' attitudes on the issue.

"Iran is viewed, widely viewed, as at least complicit in what is going on, supporting Hezbollah," he said. "And that is likely to make some of the fence-sitters, I guess Russia and China perhaps, take a dimmer view of Iranian intentions and perhaps be more amenable to U.S. and other arguments that Iran is playing a destabilizing role in the region and needs to be confronted by the Council."

Iran denies any nuclear weapons ambitions, saying it only wants nuclear energy for electric power generation. The United States and Europe say Iran is embarked on a path to nuclear weapons, although such a weapon is still be believed to be at least five years away. The U.S. and European negotiators want Iranian uranium enrichment to be halted as a precursor to any deal, or else they will push for sanctions against Iran in the Security Council.

Hezbollah has its political and spiritual roots in Iran's own Islamic revolution. In Lebanon, it is both a Lebanese Shi'ite Muslim militia and a political party with seats in parliament. Iran repeatedly denies aiding Hezbollah militarily, saying it only offers moral and political support to the group. The United States lists Hezbollah among the terrorist groups of the world.

Western analysts say there is little doubt that Hezbollah gets funds and arms from Iran. But, says Trita Parsi, Hezbollah is independent minded and does not necessarily take direction from Tehran.

"There is not much of a doubt about the fact that Hezbollah does receive different types of support from the Iranians, and the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah is quite a strong one," Parsi said. "That, however, does not mean that everything that Hezbollah does has the approval or the blessing or the explicit push by the Iranians. These are at the end of the day two entities. And in very, very many different instances the two have acted in a way that has not necessarily been in line with each other's interest."

The Congressional Research Service's Ken Katzman says Tehran may even be somewhat irked at Hezbollah and its leader Sheik Nazrallah for getting into an open conflict with Israel at this juncture.

"Iran has sort of fed on the idea that if challenged in the Security Council on the nuclear issue, that they would unleash, quote, unquote, unleash Hezbollah against Israel and make a lot of trouble," he said. "Now Hezbollah has made trouble and has been beaten back and is being diminished. So, if anything, Iran is actually positioned to lose this important leverage for Iran in Lebanon out of this crisis. And I think Iran in many ways thinks Nasrallah has miscalculated with this battle."

A vote may come in the Security Council this week that calls for Iran to suspend nuclear activities by August 31 or face as-yet unspecified international sanctions.