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In Mideast tumult, Iran's clout rises

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"The Iranians see Hizbullah as a strategic asset," says Bahman Baktiari, an Iran expert at the University of Maine in Orono. "It's the only way Iran can score points against Israel."

What Tehran seeks to accomplish with its regional rise can be reduced to two words, many analysts agree: influence and deterrence.

"Ahmadinejad especially is saying: 'We are a player to be reckoned with,' " says Alex Vatanka, an Iran specialist at Jane's Information Group in Alexandria, Va. "Above everything else, he wants to maximize Iran's position in the Muslim world."

At the same time, Iran is seeking to influence US and international actions towards it by suggesting either the benefits it can bestow – or the trouble it can unleash. "A lot of what they are doing can be seen as an effort to build deterrence vis-à-vis the US," says Mr. Vatanka.

Debate rages among Iran analysts over just what role Tehran played in sparking war between Israel and Hizbullah: Did it give the order, or did it simply supply the arms, training, and moral support to make Hizbullah's tenacious fight possible?

"It's inconceivable to me that Iran did not at the very least give a green light, and at most provoke the conflict," says Mr. Haas.

Others are not so categorical. "It would be exaggeration to say that someone in Tehran pushes a button and Hizbullah jumps," says Vatanka. "Hizbullah doesn't want the relationship to be that way."

Where there is growing consensus is around the idea that, no matter what role it played, Tehran may have overplayed its hand: that a continuing war could be decimating Hizbullah beyond the point Iran anticipated, and that a longer conflict may not help it at home or abroad. That could be one explanation for Ahmadinejad's call last week for a cease-fire in the conflict.

"He probably wants to go back to the status quo ante," says Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "That would allow Hizbullah to say, 'We [succeeded] again.' "

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