The current stand-off between Israel and Hezbollah represents the latest round in an escalating cold war between the United States and Iran -- with nothing less than the future direction of the entire Middle East at stake -- according to a former state department official and head of a Philadelphia-based think tank.
Harvey Sicherman, president and director of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, attempted to step back from the daily headlines and place the conflagration in context at a hastily arranged briefing held at the group's Center City office on July 19.
Sicherman argued that with a booming birthrate -- coupled with stagnant economies and political systems -- the region is bursting at the seams and ripe for change.
He further emphasized that the United States and Iran have emerged as the key antagonists in the battle over the area's future, with America pushing for democracy and Iran trumpeting theocracy.
"Until almost this year, the battle went to us," argued Sicherman, citing the toppling of Saddam Hussein; elections in Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Palestinian territories; and Libya's weapons' abandonment.
But the second round, which he said began in 2005, went to Iran. Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias began to reassert themselves in Iraq; the Iranian-backed Hamas won control of the Palestinian Authority; and Tehran made progress in the nuclear arena.
By giving Hezbollah the green light to launch an attack on Israel -- America's staunchest ally in the region -- Iran effectively rang the starting bell for round three, argued Sicherman.
"If you challenge America to an outright military contest, you are going to die, and they won't," he told the audience, adding that it's far safer for Iran to back a small-scale war involving Israel and Hezbollah, rather than a big one with the United States.
As for Israel, it "will accept no return to the status quo. And if Israel destroys Hezbollah's military capability, that has a drastic effect on Iranian forward deterrence."