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What is going on in southern Lebanon may look like a small-scale struggle between Israel and Hezbollah, two local forces, but in reality far wider issues are to be decided. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has declared: "Lebanon is the scene of an historic test, which will determine the future of humanity." Allowing for hyperbole, he must be taken seriously.
The ideology of the Iranian revolution separates the world into Muslims and infidels, us and them at war and ordained by God never to make peace. To these revolutionaries, the West, the US, Israel, liberal democracy, is all of a piece -- strong, perhaps, in appearance but inwardly decadent -- so that one good pull will unravel the whole doomed cat's cradle. As faithful Shia Muslims, they also believe the doctrine that the End of Days is foretold, and imminent.
Conditioned by prejudice and emotion, the picture these revolutionaries have of events, and therefore of their enemies, is closed to reality. They are also masters of bluff and deception.
This divergence between intention and practice is what makes it so difficult to deal with them. The way they have concealed and prevaricated over their nuclear program is a pertinent example. True imperialists, they have created the so-called "Shia crescent" that reaches from the Persian Gulf via Syria (whose regime consists of heterodox Shia) to the Mediterranean.
Their hold on Iraq was impressively demonstrated when Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, refused to condemn Hezbollah while addressing Congress on his visit to Washington.
Their preparation of Hezbollah has also been masterly. In the early 1980s, Iranian emissaries began recruiting the Shi'ites of Lebanon. Hezbollah was to spread Shia influence through social and communal activities deftly combined with terror, in the way that the Muslim Brotherhood had long been doing for Sunnis.
This worked well for Iran. The militant arm of Iran, taking hostages and organising suicide attacks against US and European interests, Hezbollah obliged the powers to modify their policies. Hezbollah's then leader could not have been clearer, saying: "We are not fighting so that you will offer us something. We are fighting to eliminate you."
In 2000, Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon, and Tehran claimed this as a victory for Islam. With its militia, its enforcement of sharia law in areas it controls, its banking and properties, its representatives in the Lebanese parliament and cabinet, Hezbollah is a state within a state.
Precluding the country's sovereignty to the extent of making war in its name, Hezbollah has not just extended the Shia crescent but colonised Lebanon for Iran. The Taliban and al-Qa'ida colonised Afghanistan similarly for Sunni revolutionaries.
The Tehran revolutionaries took advantage of the weaknesses of others but they were also lucky. The oil price has given them a free ride. Like Tsarist Russia before it, post-Soviet Russia hopes to extend its reach southwards through Iran and therefore aids the Tehran nuclear program.
US presidents Carter and Clinton turned a blind eye to the attacks against American interests, even when these were murderous. President George W. Bush struck out at the Iraq of Saddam Hussein, inadvertently encouraging Tehran to act as the unchallenged regional power, with the Middle East open before it.
But attacking Israel now, have they not committed the mistake Saddam Hussein made by invading Kuwait? Tehran had only to wait for an estimated three or four years, and it would have the cover of a nuclear weapon. It was surely not a coincidence that Hezbollah attacked Israel on the very day set as a deadline by the international community for the Iranian response to the proposal concerning its nuclear program.
In the light of its prejudices and irrationality, Tehran must have judged that Israel would meekly accept whatever demands were made of it. But whether Tehran miscalculated the Israeli response or deliberately provoked it, the consequences are the same. Iran sees itself representing militant Islam. That is what Ahmadinejad means with talk of a historic test.
The several previous wars with Israel were fought by Arabs in the name of Arab nationalism. At least the dimension of these wars was clear: it was state versus state. Israel's recurrent victories exposed that Arab nationalism was some sort of fiction doing untold damage to Arabs themselves.
The revolutionaries in Iran offer the alternative of Islamic solidarity. Muslim faith in their view has priority over any rival identity of statehood or nationality. Substituting faith for state, they have devised a mutation of nationalism, and potentially this has a far larger dimension. In evident panic, Sunni clerics in Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been quick to repudiate the Shia claim to be representing a universal and militant Islam, and to stake their own claim to Islamic supremacy.
Sunni intellectuals support them. Ahmad Jarallah, editor-in-chief of a Kuwaiti newspaper, openly acknowledged that "the operations of Israel in Gaza and Lebanon are in the interest of people of Arab countries and the international community".
That is the strict political logic now in play. But, in contrast, crowds on Arab streets -- and, of course, the European media -- seem to be applauding Hezbollah for the simple reason that it is killing Jews. Ahmadinejad's historic test may well turn on the battle for public opinion.
Israel is the victim of terror, and its response to Hezbollah is a parallel to the American response to September 11. It is not Israel's purpose to play any part in such issues as the relation between Sunni and Shia. But the fact is that unless and until Iranian imperialism is curtailed, the Lebanese cannot recover their country or fulfil the promise of the Cedar Revolution; Syria can never be free from its tyrannical regime; and the West is menaced not for what it does but for what it is.
Saving itself, rolling back Hezbollah, Israel is exposing the fictions that pass for reality in Tehran. Faith-based war and terror, it is now all too obvious, is an even greater threat to civilisation than state-based war and terror.
David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor of National Review.Among his books is The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.
Original piece is http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,19962861-2703,00.html