The "war on terror" was pretty great for Iran’s hardliners. The Bush administration’s 2002 inclusion of Iran in the "Axis of Evil" was a major blow to Iranian moderates, discrediting their calls for U.S.-Iran rapprochement and supporting the claims of Iran’s hard-liners that engagement with America was pointless. The invasion of Iraq removed Iran’s greatest enemy, Saddam Hussein, against whom Iran had fought a staggeringly destructive eight-year war. Iraq’s postwar government included a significant number of Iran’s former clients—including eventual Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq—in top leadership positions.
The perceived success of Iran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah against Israel in 2006—in a devastating month-long combination of bombing and ground combat hailed by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East"—also proved a huge boost to Iranian hawks. A 2007 poll of Egyptians placed Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah as the two most admired leaders in the region. The fact that two Shiite leaders topped an Egyptian poll, even as Iraq’s sectarian civil war raged and Arab leaders like Jordan’s King Abdullah warned of Shiite inroads into Sunni Arab lands, is a testament to Iran and Hezbollah’s success in defying the West.
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