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Why those Iranians in Lebanon

Reports of Iranian volunteers arriving in Damascus and possibly Lebanon to fight against the Israelis have received only limited attention, possibly because observers don't quite know what to make of them. But the meaning should be clear - the Khomeini revolution has been ''exported,'' and in a way that could be more dangerous than if this had occurred via an Iranian invasion of Iraq.

The most obvious characteristic of the Israeli attack on Lebanon has been the impression of Arab ineffectiveness in the presence of Israeli arms. There is also the American inability to influence any situation when confronted by Israeli politicians.

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But one more item should not be missed. More so than ever before, the Israelis have demonstrated their complete domination of the region.

Israeli power has not been manifest by a magnificent feat of arms. The Syrian resistance has been half-hearted and the Palestine Liberation Organization just could not contend with the Israeli machine.

Rather, Israeli pre-eminence was established because not a single Arab government other than Syria's responded with more than vitriol and condemnation. It is a far cry from 1967 when Jordan and Syria went to war as Israeli forces rolled across Sinai. But not this time. Current Arab governments have accepted their ineffectiveness, and here is where the Iranians come in.

The situation would not be so bad if Middle East leaders couched issues in terms of Jordanian, Syrian, Egyptian, or Saudi interests. Then these leaders could ignore Lebanon and the plight of the PLO. But appeals to the people more often depict broad aspirations associated with an Arab homeland, pride, national fulfillment and, most of all, the Palestinians as the ''Arab Cause.'' Thus, no Arab leader can avoid some of the responsibility for Israel's success in invading an Arab country, besieging an Arab capital, and destroying the military power of the ''sole representative of the Palestinian people'' - a title formally bestowed on the PLO by all Arab chiefs of state at Algiers in 1974.

And now the two threats to Arab leaders have converged. The Israelis have proved current Arab leadership impotent while the Iranians through their volunteers have positioned themselves as an alternative. Saudi Arabia and the smaller states of the Persian Gulf - Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman - already feel threatened for having supported Iraq against a victorious Iran which understandably has turned its antagonism toward them. Now an Iranian threat is posed for other Arab leaders as well.

The option which the Iranian presence in Lebanon suggests is stark insofar as the governments to be judged (and their leaders) are secular and most of them are ''moderate'' - they have been prepared to get along with the US. In many Arab minds these characteristics (i.e., a pro-Western stance) will now be matched with the incompetence which Israel has demonstrated of Arab leaders. To the extent that Iran chooses to exploit its relative power, just by keeping the volunteers in Lebanon or Syria, it will epitomize the resolve of fundamental Islam in contrast with the fecklessness of the secular moderates.

Large Iranian armies transgressing the Arab landscape may not be in the offing, but the 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and the abortive coup discovered in Bahrain last December, all suggest that the fundamentalist challenge is present, if just beneath the surface of Arab political life. The vitality of Khomeini's forces represents victory for Islamic fundamentalism, whether Shia or Sunni.

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Iran's success can only encourage those of fundamental persuasions in Arab countries. And the Iranian ayatollahs are apparently not content to serve passively as examples. Some Iranian leaders have openly acknowledged that they are training zealots from other Muslim countries as messengers of true Islam. Iran, they concede, is preparing a massive ideological invasion of neighboring countries.

In the midst of all this, some Arabs sense a growing feeling of powerlessness in their governments that can only be accentuated by events in Lebanon. As this feeling becomes apparent, conditions become rife for political instability. The current mood in Arab countries is such that those who govern are already looking over their shoulders. They don't like the position in which they find themselves , either in their relations with the US and its prescriptions for regional peace and security or in their adherence to Western economic liberalism. Social interpretations inherent in a free market system are beginning to arouse opposition in Islamic countries.

Islam is a power among Arab populations. To suggest that its proponents can acquire power or that its tenets could be revealed through government is not unreasonable. For regional politics Islam now represents a thesis of strength and independence. The Arabs want both, and the Iranian experience has indicated a way of achieving them which appears more successful than that provided by any other philosophy, ideology, or social remedy currently on the scene.

The US has reason for concern. More is involved in Lebanon than just the bitter resentment of Arab leaders toward us. Americans often don't think of it in these terms, but the very leaders who afford us so much comfort actually do so because of their ineffectiveness - a trait we have unwittingly, if not unknowingly, nurtured.

In the short run, this ineffectiveness served Washington's purpose. Because of it, the Arabs could never compel us to bridle the Israelis. And in the presence of Israel, our government seldom does anything about the Middle East which it is not compelled to do.

Now the Arab leadership we favor might be in danger. It could be replaced by a group that was much less willing to bear the indignities that most Arabs see in our policies.

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