IRAN'S CHESSBOARD. Kevin Drum takes up the question of how involved Iran and Syria have been in recent events in the Middle East. While Los Angeles Times reporters speaking primarily to American or U.S.-based sources painted an inconclusive picture, a Gaza-based New York Times reporter's overseas sources pointed a more direct finger at Tehran:

An Arab intelligence officer working in a country neighboring Israel said it appeared that Iran � through Hezbollah � had given support to Mr. Meshal to stage the seizure of Corporal Shalit. The officer said the Shalit case, even before the capture of two more Israeli soldiers, amounted to Hezbollah and Iran sending a message: �If you want to hurt us, there are tools that we have and that we can use against you.�

Israeli intelligence officers and analysts say they believe that the message is primarily Iran�s, acting through Hezbollah and Mr. Meshal.

Itamar Rabinovich, former Israeli ambassador to Washington and chief negotiator with Syria on a peace treaty that never quite materialized, sees Iran �on a roll, looking for regional hegemony.� Even without nuclear weapons, Iran is acquiring considerable influence in Lebanon, in Syria and with the Palestinians, not to speak of Iraq.

Further, while it may seem to domestic observers that such provocations would increase the likelihood of American military intervention against Iran or Syria by making them focal points (already chest-thumping neoconservative pundits are calling for war, arguing that the Iranians "have made their threat to America and its interests more obvious and more urgent--providing a stronger case for war than their nuclear program could provide"), it's hard to imagine that Iran would have supported or allowed such provocations by its clients if it believed that regional chaos would increase the odds of an American attack -- or even economic sanctions -- which they very much hope to avoid. I hate to cite anything from Powerline, but this from a Andrew Jacobson strikes me as an equally plausible scenario:

Iran has orchestrated much (if not all) of the current unrest and violence in order to: (i) distract attention from its nuclear weapons program, (ii) tie down Israel militarily in order to reduce the chances that Israel could unilaterally (or in combination with the U.S.) launch a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, (iii) scare the American public (and politicians) into rejecting any unilateral military option against Iran for fear of further inflaming the Mideast (e.g., "Geez, we've already got huge issues in North Korea, Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, we can't possibly afford any further foreign entanglements" or "We better not do anything to Iran, we might further inflame the Mideast, threaten our oil supply and the U.S. economy" (Lord knows we don't want to pay $%/gallon for our SUV's)), and (iv) create world furor against Israel (and indirectly the U.S.), to further raise the stakes and international opposition to any unilateral military strikes.

There is no question that the U.S. will suffer economically from war in the Middle East -- we've already seeing gas prices jump over the past few days -- and that the U.S. public (rightly) already has no appetite for further foreign entanglements. A reorientation of U.S. foreign policy from agitating for a conflict with Iran to soothing the conflict between Israel and Lebanon is very much in Iran's interests. That Israel gets a hail of rockets and international condemnation along the way is a plus, as is the damage to the U.S. economy from increased energy costs. Recall, too, that we're already at high risk of recession in the wake of the Federal Reserve Bank's rate-raising spree, and experiencing income stagnation everywhere but at the very top of the scale. A war-related energy shock on top of that would be a disaster for the average American -- and that's not even counting the possibility of another hurricane season like last year's in the Gulf of Mexico, which already has one energy analyst predicting crude oil prices of more than $80 a barrel by fall. Recall, too, that broadly-shared economic pain tends to get domestic political parties ousted from power, and that America's ruling party is already facing a serious challenge to its grip on power in elections that are just three and a half months away.

Syria is a whole different question, and focusing international attention on Syria's role in fomenting the present violence may actually aid the Lebanese in their desire to finally get Hezbollah to disarm, as required by U.N. resolution 1559. Michael Young lays out that case in today's New York Times, as Matt noted below, and there is a real opportunity here for both the Lebanese and the Israelis to create international pressure on Syria and support for Hezbollah disarmanent. But, as Young notes, that would require Israel to focus its attack on Hezbollah and stop putting pressure on Lebanon as a whole. Taking out the airports and bridges and blockading the port is a strategy designed to make all of Lebanon -- beautiful, resurgent Lebanon, the vacation destination of choice in the Middle East and for more than a million people a year -- suffer. Israeli intelligence and military officials know very well where most of the Hezbollah encampments along the border are -- heck, you can see them from Israel, along with the yellow Hezbollah flag -- and could take those out if it wanted to focus its attack on the terrorists. Instead, its early military moves have nationalized the attack on Lebanon, when the solution would seem to involve strengthening, not weakening, the Lebanese government's position vis a vis Hezbollah.

--Garance Franke-Ruta