(MENAFN - Arab News) Iran's ruling ayatollahs are playing a clever game. Their influence throughout the Middle East and the Arabian Gulf is increasing without a single shot being fired.
They are initiating sectarian chasms in the region and attracting armed non-state actors within various countries with the use of wealth and stealth, buttressed by growing military sophistication and belligerence.
The nuclear issue dominating headlines is a red herring. The danger to the area that Iran represents is real but has little to do with whether or not it emerges as a nuclear-armed power. Even if it did, a nuclear arsenal would only be useful as a deterrent for if the button was ever pressed, retaliation would come swift and fast causing the country's total destruction.
The fact is Iran doesn't require such weapons of mass destruction to exercise its regional clout; it's doing very well without them. A case in point is Iraq whose leadership led by Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is firmly in Tehran's pocket to the detriment of the country's Sunni and Kurdish populations that complain their government is focused on Shiite interests. Al-Maliki has been quoted in the Egyptian daily Al-Masry Al-Youm as declaring "Firstly, I'm a Shiite, secondly, I'm an Iraqi - and third and fourth I'm an Arab and a Dawa Party member."
Al-Maliki has personal affiliations with Tehran which hosted him for eight years during his exile from Iraq. Since taking the helm of a country that wasn't that long ago Iran's sworn enemy, he has crossed the border several times to meet with old friends and new.
On Sunday, at the start of a two-day official visit to Iran, the Iraqi leader held talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "to boost stability and security in the region" he said.
Ahmadinejad was effusive, adding there was "no limit to the strengthening of political, economic and cultural ties" between the two neighbors. "If Tehran and Baghdad are strong, the region will have no place for the United States and the Zionist regime," he declared. Actually, Ahmadinejad should be thanking Uncle Sam for spilling the blood of America's finest and depleting its treasure to provide his nation, its arch-foe, with such a magnificent gift.
The love affair between Iraq and Iran may be heating up but Baghdad's relations with Ankara are becoming icy. Turkey's outspoken Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan blames Al-Maliki's self-interested decisions and attempted ousting of senior Sunni politicians from government for the widening sectarian divisions and has warned that Ankara would not stand on the sidelines in the event those divides turn into Sunni-Shiite conflicts. Al-Maliki has dismissed Turkey as a "hostile state" with regional "hegemonic ambitions".
Iraq's Sunni Vice President Tariq Al-Hashemi, who took refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region rather than face a kangaroo court on alleged trumped-up charges that he ran an assassination squad, accuses Iran of playing a sinister role in Iraq's affairs and maintains that Al-Maliki's policies are fueling violence "sectarian polarization" that may end with his country's break-up.
Iran is not only meddling in Iraq's internal politics, it appears to be pulling Al-Maliki's strings over Baghdad's stance within the Arab League vis--vis the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on Syria's civilian freedom-seeking population. Iraq is one of few Arab states that reject international sanctions on Syria and the arming of insurgents. Ironically, Baghdad dismisses foreign interference in Syria yet at the same time prominent Iraqi Shiites display tacit support for the primarily Shiite uprising in Bahrain.
Not content with posters of Iran's supreme leader gracing the walls of West Beirut and the south of Lebanon, reports suggest that Tehran is shoring up its influence in Syria by supplying weapons and Revolutionary Guard military advisers to the Syrian regime. Just last week, Turkish port officials boarded a German-owned vessel chartered by a Ukrainian company en route to Syria in compliance with EU anti-Syria sanctions to discover Iranian weapons, said to have been loaded in Djibouti.
Tehran is currently attempting to exploit Egypt's post-revolution political vulnerabilities to get a foot-in there. Its target is the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), with which, according to the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran enjoys close contact. There are indications that some elements of the MB are being funded by Iran while a recent Gallop Poll suggests Egyptians would prefer to receive economic aid from Iran and Turkey instead of the US.
When Egyptian links with both the US and Israel are strained it's unsurprising that the Iranian leadership is attempting to get through a door that's been closed to them since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
That would be a nightmarish scenario for Israel especially coming at a time when its peace treaty with Egypt could be in jeopardy. The signs for Camp David's longevity are not good.
Israel has cleared out its embassy in Cairo and flown its contents home citing security concerns and on Sunday evening Egypt unilaterally terminated its agreement to supply Israel with up to 40 percent of its natural gas requirements due to, what Cairo characterizes as a "trade dispute" rather than a political decision.
In the meantime, the Iranian leadership is attempting to defuse tensions over its uranium enrichment program by holding "constructive" discussions with the P5 1, talks which are temporarily gagging Israeli saber-rattling. With sanctions hitting Iran's economy and currency, Tehran may be disposed to compromise with its Western critics even as it appears to be going out of its way to alienate Gulf states. Certainly Ahmadinejad's controversial visit to a UAE-owned island Abu Musa, filched by the Shah in the early 1970s, has ratcheted up GCC suspicions over Tehran's true long-term agenda.
The future is still somewhat of a blank slate. Will Iraq split up? Will Assad fall leaving Hezbollah out on a limb? Will Egypt succumb to Iranian overtures? Will the US decide 'if you can't beat 'em, join 'em' before entering into some kind of accommodation with the ayatollahs? One thing is for sure. Iran's arm is not only extending, its hands are furiously stirring the regional pot.