MESS Report / The Smell of Smoke in the Air All Comes Back to Iran

Tensions are rising in various parts of the Middle East, and recent incidents are feeding off each other.

The report Wednesday of a failed assassination attempt on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fell on fertile media ground: One day after the deadly incident on the Israel-Lebanon border and two days after rockets hit Eilat and Aqaba, it seemed as if there weren't a drama-free moment anywhere in the region.

A few hours later, Iran issued a denial: It wasn't an assassin's grenade, but a firecracker set off by one of the president's fans. The international media quickly lost interest. And at the minute, nothing seems to directly link these three incidents.

But there is a connection: Tensions are rising in various parts of the Middle East, and each incident feeds off the others. For weeks, there has been a smell of smoke in the air: the new sanctions on Iran, the smuggling of advanced weaponry from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah, the probe into former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri's murder. None of this necessarily means impending war, but emotions are running high.


The assassination report apparently came from an Iranian website of dubious credibility. But then, Iran's government isn't known for its credibility either.

Something else was also reported from Iran yesterday: that it has acquired four sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles - or perhaps four batteries. The Russian-made missiles were reportedly obtained via Belarus.

Russia has been negotiating an S-300 sale with Iran for years, but its leadership is divided over whether to go through with the deal.

The missiles would hamper an aerial strike on Iran's nuclear facilities - which is why Washington and Jerusalem have been pressing Moscow not to deliver them. Western intelligence agencies suspect the Russians have already let the Iranians train on the missiles. Still, without any proof, Wednesday's report sounds dubious.

The Lebanese front was quiet Wednesday. Israel was encouraged by UNIFIL's confirmation that its soldiers indeed never entered Lebanon while clearing brush on Tuesday - the action that sparked the Lebanese attack. The Lebanese Army, unhappy with the blow it suffered, also seems to be showing restraint, so the incident is unlikely to spark a wider conflict. But the diversion of attention from the Hariri murder probe to tension on the border benefited Hezbollah, which may well try to repeat the exercise.

As for the Eilat-Aqaba attack, both Israel and Egypt yesterday accused Hamas of carrying out the attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even went as far as to send out a taped message to all three television stations in which he threatened to respond. In Egypt, the assumption that Hamas was to blame means more trouble. Cairo will find it even more difficult to broker a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal against the backdrop of one of the sides using Egyptian soil as a base for launching terror attacks.

And here is where it all ties back into Iran: The Egyptians, like the Jordanians (who were hit hardest in Monday's attack ), are very worried by Iran's growing penetration of the region, and especially its increasingly close ties with the Hamas leadership in Gaza. If Iran is really sweating over the new sanctions or worried over American officials' recent statements about the possibility of attacking it, the effects will be felt in our region, too.