OpinionIran in the World PressIran v Saudis in battle of Beirut

Iran v Saudis in battle of Beirut

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The Guardian: Having looked on helplessly, or unhelpfully, during Israel’s destabilising summer bombardment of Lebanon, Britain and other European countries are now scrabbling to shore up Fouad Siniora’s shaky pro-western government. The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, and her German counterpart were in Beirut at the weekend. Messages of solidarity have come from France and Italy. The Guardian

Simon Tisdall

Having looked on helplessly, or unhelpfully, during Israel’s destabilising summer bombardment of Lebanon, Britain and other European countries are now scrabbling to shore up Fouad Siniora’s shaky pro-western government. The foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, and her German counterpart were in Beirut at the weekend. Messages of solidarity have come from France and Italy. Even Israel is warning of dire consequences should Mr Siniora fall.

All agree that this week’s Hizbullah-organised, largely Shia Muslim demonstrations, although broadly peaceful and “democratic” so far, must not be allowed to topple the government. Their attitude contrasts awkwardly with the approving western view of last year’s anti-Syrian street protests by Sunni Muslims, Christians and Druze, whimsically dubbed the “cedar revolution”, which ousted Lebanon’s then prime minister, Omar Karami.

A Hizbullah political success would plainly complement the group’s self-proclaimed military successes of August. And like Israel, the US and Britain see the potential “loss” of Lebanon as a direct gain not only for Syria and its favourite militia, but more worryingly, for Iran. This places the battle for Beirut squarely in the wider context of a regional power struggle with an increasingly confident Tehran.

“I have no doubt that if this [Lebanese”> government loses power and there is a shift there, the northern front might heat up again and there could be even more escalation than there was this year,” Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, a former head of military intelligence, told Israel Army Radio. “If the Siniora government falls, it means Lebanon will be controlled by the long arm of Iran,” said an Israeli cabinet minister, Meir Sheetrit.

No less nervous about Shia Iran’s supposedly malign spreading influence are Sunni-led regimes in Cairo, Amman and Riyadh. Saudi Arabia’s particular worries were highlighted recently by a one-stop visit by Dick Cheney. The US vice-president has to watch his health. He rarely travels. But he went all the way to Riyadh to hear Saudi concerns about Iran’s activities in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and the Gulf.

For all his trouble, Mr Cheney seems to have come away with a polite flea in his ear. A Saudi statement said US policies should be “in accord with the region’s actual condition and its historical equilibrium”. Translated from diplomat-speak, that was a call for greater White House responsibility. And that in turn meant, for instance, that any post-Baker review attempt to cut and run in Iraq, or “cut and walk” as Washington wags are now terming the proposed withdrawal strategy, should be firmly resisted.

Riyadh is indirectly confronting Tehran in Palestine, where it supports President Mahmoud Abbas against the Iranian-backed Hamas, and in Lebanon, where it is bankrolling the Siniora government.

But the key battleground is Iraq. The Saudis fear that a failure of the US there would confirm the country’s domination by Iran, jeopardise the survival of Iraq’s Sunni minority and upset political and religious power balances along the entire western Gulf littoral. “Since America came into Iraq uninvited, it should not leave uninvited,” a Saudi government adviser, Nawaf Obaid, told the Washington Post, quoting Prince Turki al-Faisal. “If it does, one of the first consequences will be a massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shia militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.”

Saudi Arabia was ready, if need be, to provide weapons and financial support to Sunnis, as Iran did to the Shias, he added. It could even massively expand oil production to deflate world prices and ruin Iran’s oil-based economy.

Iran says Saudi concerns are misplaced. Tehran has no grand regional imperialist design, a government official said. “The Saudis have nothing to fear from Iran. We should work together with them. What we want is an end to western interference in Iraq, in Lebanon, in all these places. The west must accept that regional problems should be solved by regional players.”

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