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In Mideast tumult, Iran's clout rises

Hizbullah has embroiled Iran's nemesis Israel in a bloody conflict - and diverted attention from Iran's nuclear program.

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In Syria and across southern Lebanon, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad smiles broadly from posters that feature the fiery leader alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Hizbullah's Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

To judge by Iran's expanding influence across an increasingly turbulent Middle East, Mr. Ahmadinejad has good reason to smile. Not only are the political winds blowing his way in former arch-enemy Iraq, but now the war touched off by Hizbullah, the Iranian- created and supplied organization in Lebanon, has embroiled Iran's nemesis Israel in a bloody conflict – and diverted attention from Iran's nuclear program.

Topping it all off, Iran specialists say, the diminutive but rhetorically explosive leader sees Iran's existential enemy, the United States, so weakened by its Iraq involvement that he and the regime's powerful mullahs are feeling less constrained by fears of America.

And the troubling reality, these experts add, is that the regime's analysis is more accurate than fanciful.

"Four years after being labeled part of the axis of evil, Iran has a sense of being on the rise while the US and the West are increasingly weak, and they have reason to think that way," says Lawrence Haas, an Iran specialist at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.

Iran's tactics may backfire, these analysts add. The United Nations Security Council could vote as early as Monday on a resolution threatening sanctions if it doesn't suspend enriching uranium by Aug. 31.

Still, the list of factors contributing to Iran's growing sense of power is long – from the removal of two neighboring enemies in Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rise of friendly Shiite forces in Iraq, the expansion of radical Islamism, and drawn-out international diplomacy over Iran's nuclear program.

Iran is thought to funnel about $200 million a year to its pet causes in the Islamist movement, including an estimated $100 million going to Hizbullah. That investment has spread Iran's influence westward and raised fears in Lebanon's Sunni neighbors of a rising radical Shiite crescent. It also provides Iran with a footprint in the heart of the Middle East and – with its lesser investment in Hamas – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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