MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
The news in the Middle East has a common theme: turmoil. There's the standoff in Lebanon. For more than a month, street protestors have been trying to bring down the Western-backed government. There's renewed violence among Palestinian factions. And there's Iraq, where the struggle is complicated as groups jockey for power.
BLOCK: a confrontation between Iran and the U.S. over power and influence in the Middle East.
Here's NPR's Deborah Amos.
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DEBORAH AMOS: In the Lebanese capital - with the inescapable sounds of street demonstrations in the background - Mr. Bah Adhab(ph) considers the current confrontation in Lebanon. Adhab is a member of parliament, allied with the Western-backed government under siege. He says the demonstrations led by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim group, is part of a much greater struggle.
BAH ADHAB: This is a major challenge for us, but this is nothing compared to the direct confrontation on a political level sent by Iran to America. It's clear.
AMOS: Western diplomats and analysts agree. They say Lebanon is just one arena in a showdown between the United States and Iran, one more place U.S. influence is being challenged, says Columbia University professor Gary Sick.
GARY SICK: If you want to see the region in those terms, that this is all about Iran and the United States, Lebanon seems to be a nice, clear-cut case.
AMOS: In Lebanon, Iran and Syria back Hezbollah while the Bush administration supports the government. And there are other regional challenges. In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Iran pledged millions to help the Hamas-led Palestinian government replace funds cut off by the U.S. and Europe.
In Iraq, Iran supports and finances forces aligned against U.S. troops. These challenges have brought together an unusual coalition, says analyst Gary Sick.
SICK: You have the United States and Israel and the major Sunni states all agreed about this one thing, which is Iran is getting too big, too threatening, and we've got to do something about it.
AMOS: Saudi Arabia, one of those major Sunni states, has joined forces with the U.S. and Lebanon, says Shibley Telhami of the Brookings Institution. In this regional struggle, he says, it is Iran and its ally Syria against the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Saudis are invested in Lebanese politics. In a way, they're a player. And so there, I think the Syrians and the Saudis are really on opposite sides of this picture. That's a big issue at the moment in the game that is being played out in Lebanon.
AMOS: The Saudis see Iran threatening the Middle East power bAllence. Nadim Shehadi - an analyst at a London-based think tank - says that explains the Saudi's turn against Iran's ally, Syria.
NADIM SHEHADI: They are not happy about their alliance with Iran, which is the main Saudi rival in the region.
AMOS: And then there was a speech this summer. The Syrian president made Saudi Arabia's pro-American stance a manhood issue.
SHEHADI: Bashir Assad, after the war this summer, accused all the Arab leaders - he meant the Saudis in particular - of being half men and being at the mercy of the Americans. And it's unusual for a Syrian leader to go that far.
AMOS: Saudi Arabia's response has been harsh. In December, Nawaf Obaid - who at the time headed the Security Assessment Project for the Saudi government - was in Washington, briefing members of Congress. He says he made it clear: when it comes to the future of Lebanon, the Iranians and the Syrians are in for a fight.
NAWAF OBAID: They're not going to get Lebanon back. There is no way. Saudi Arabia is going to be committing over $2 billion to Lebanon. We're not committing all that money in order to have some Syrian thugs running around again with Hezbollah trying to rule the place. That's just not going to happen. The Americans are on board. The French are on board. So if Syrians think they're going to get any form of influence in Lebanon left, they're dreaming.
AMOS: The current Middle East struggle has been compared to the Cold War - flash points in Lebanon with Palestinians and in Iraq. It's a war waged with weapons in some places and money in others, as Iran and the United States vie for influence.
Analyst Nadim Shehadi says this Cold War started for one major reason.
SHEHADI: Well, I mean, we're going through a very difficult period, which is, in a way, the aftermath of the Iraq invasion. The regime in Iraq fell three years ago, and these are the ripple effects.
AMOS: The invasion of Iraq helped Iran in several ways. Iran's old enemy, Saddam Hussein, was removed. A government friendly to Iran emerged in Iraq after U.S.-sponsored elections there. The high price of oil gave Iran more money to pass around the Middle East, which makes Iran a rising power. Washington's declaration that Iran is a threat drives Iranian behavior, says Gary Sick.
SICK: It's not that Iran is so overwhelmingly powerful. Iran is fighting - the Americans, that is - in Iraq because they don't want to fight them in Iran.
AMOS: Iraq is another arena in the confrontation between the U.S. and Iran - for Washington, perhaps, the most important one. Which is why, says Gary Sick, that following the president's announcement of a new plan for Iraq, the focus in Washington turned to Iran.
SICK: When you start having all of your headlines focusing on Iran instead of looking at Iraq, in a way, the administration can breathe a little easier. There are other things to talk about that are seen in a broader context. And, you know, I don't know how the Iraqi thing is going to play out, but I do think we may be creating a set of circumstances that increasingly let us blame Iran for our problems in Iraq rather than blaming ourselves.
AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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