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Iran: Is Tehran Protecting Its Investment In Hizballah?

A pro-Hizballah demonstration in Tehran in July (Fars) WASHINGTON, August 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Both Israel and Lebanon indicated their willingness to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 1701, agreed on which has brought a halt to nearly five weeks of fighting. Hizballah accepted the cease-fire but refused to disarm.

As a main sponsor of Hizballah, Iran could use its leverage to encourage compliance with the UN-brokered resolution. Tehran is criticizing the resolution, however -- whether due to its heavy ideological and material investment in Hizballah or because of its desire to use the Lebanese conflict to boost its own credentials.

The cease-fire resolution includes references to two previous resolutions (1559 and 1680) that call for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. It also notes that the Lebanese government must exercise full sovereignty in the country.

'Winners' And 'Losers'

As the only remaining militia of any consequence in Lebanon, Hizballah is referred to -- directly or indirectly -- in all three resolutions. Earlier this year, the Lebanese cabinet identified Hizballah as "the resistance" -- wording that obviates the disarmament requirement.

Hizballah initially announced that it accepted the resolution. But a Lebanese cabinet session on August 13, the eve of the cease-fire, was adjourned for a day after Hizballah announced that it would not disarm in the area where international peacekeepers and Lebanese army forces should deploy, Al-Arabiyah television reported.

Iran's Foreign Ministry responded to Resolution 1701 by saying it was "not balanced," and suggested its delay in ratification undermined the Security Council's credibility. Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said Iran was "happy" that the resolution was passed but stressed its failure to condemn alleged Israeli "crimes," according to Iran News Network. Assefi also described "Lebanon's resistance movement, [its] people, and Hezbollah" as the "absolute winners" in the conflict. Israel, he claimed, "was the total loser."

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad described the resolution as one-sided, state radio reported on August 14. In a reference to Israel, Ahmadinejad added that "the myth of the invincibility of this contrived and decayed regime crumbled thanks to the faith and self-confidence of Lebanon's Hizballah."

Iranian Involvement

Iran's role in the region is never mentioned explicitly in the UN resolution. But it is arguably alluded to in clauses on disarmament related to the conflict.

Specifically, the Security Council calls for an embargo on arms not destined for the Lebanese military, and says UN personnel will back efforts to prevent such smuggling. Iran is believed to have supplied Hizballah with a variety of missiles. Hizballah has used one such missile against an Israeli naval vessel and has fired many others at Israeli population centers.
An Iranian official with extensive involvement in Hizballah affairs acknowledged that Hizballah "has used" Iranian-manufactured missiles, in addition to Katyushas.

Iran has historically denied supplying Hizballah with arms.

But an Iranian official with extensive involvement in Hizballah affairs, Hojatoleslam Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pur, acknowledged in an extensive interview in the August 3 issue of "Sharq" that Hizballah "has used" Iranian-manufactured missiles (Zelzal-2), in addition to Katyushas. Mohtashami-Pur heads the Support for the Palestinian Intifada conference series and was a leader in the creation of Hizballah when he was Tehran's ambassador to Damascus in the 1980s. After noting Hizballah's use in the current conflict of Zelzal-2 missiles, Mohtashami-Pur warned that "there is no place in Palestine that is occupied by Israel which cannot be the target of the Hizballah missiles."

"Jane's Defense Weekly" claimed on August 7 that Iran intends to supply Hizballah with several types of handheld surface-to-air missiles. Quoting anonymous "Western diplomatic sources," the British-based weekly said those weapons include Russian-made missile systems -- specifically, the Strela-2/2 (SA-7 Grail), Strela-3 (SA-14 Gremlin), and the Igla-1E (SA-16 Gimlet). "Jane's" also suggested that Iran intends to provide Hizballah with a low- to very-low-altitude surface-to-air missile system (Mithaq-1) that is a model of the Chinese QW-1 system.

Iranian Training

Mohtashami-Pur also said that Hizballah personnel have been trained by Iranians in Lebanon, and have received training in Iran. He boasted that "many of the experienced Hizballah forces...were on [Iran's] fronts" in its eight-year war with Iraq, adding that "they carried out operations directly or under our cover."

"It is true that, at the beginning, the Hizballah forces were trained in Iran and Lebanon by the Islamic Revolution Guard Corps," Mohtashami-Pur said. He added that Guards Corps personnel fought in Lebanon in the early 1980s, but then Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini said it would be wiser to train the Lebanese. "At that moment, a new phase began, which was the training of the Lebanese forces; and it resulted in the establishment of the Hizballah and the resistance; and we saw that after 18 years Israel was defeated in the face of such a force and left Lebanon."
In a predominantly Sunni Muslim world, it is the Shi'ite "Party of God" -- Hizballah -- that is seen to be standing up to Israel. And it is Iran that inspired and still backs Hizballah, while most other countries do nothing.

Sheikh Naim Qasim, the deputy secretary-general of Hizballah, acknowledged the Iranian role in statements that appeared in "Le Monde" on August 11. He noted the establishment of Guards Corps training camps in the Bekaa Valley in the early 1980s, adding that the end of the Israeli occupation in 2000 benefited from "effective Iranian support."

It is possible that Hizballah personnel continue to receive training in Iran. A purported Hizballah fighter captured by Israeli forces acknowledged during interrogation that he received military training in Iran, Reuters reported on August 7, quoting Israeli military sources. The man, who identified himself as Mahmud Ali Suleiman, said he was accompanied by 40-50 other men when he went to Iran via Damascus airport to receive training on the use of antitank weapons.

Brothers In Arms?

There have been several reports in Israeli media suggesting that Iranian Guards Corps personnel have fought alongside Hizballah in the current conflict. This seems unlikely, because Tehran almost certainly recognizes the repercussions of an Iranian being captured and displayed on television. But this awareness does not rule out the presence of Guards Corps personnel who married into Lebanese families. Nor does it rule out the actions of deniable special-operations forces.

Hizballah's reluctance to disarm is to be expected. It has refused to do so since the Security Council issued Resolution 1559 in late 2004, although Israeli forces had withdrawn from Lebanon. Having drawn Israel into open warfare in the current situation, its retention of arms now appears justified. There is now little chance of Hizballah becoming merely another political organization representing one of the country's religious or ethnic communities.

Hizballah is not directed from Tehran. But as its main benefactor and ideological inspiration, Tehran is in a strong position to discourage Hizballah's cooperation with Resolution 1701.

There are several reasons why Iran might be tempted to pursue such a policy. Continuation of the current conflict could provide Iran with a moral high ground in regional affairs -- as it points accusingly at Western support for Israel and the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The Iranians could argue that armed resistance is the only language the enemy understands. Moreover, in a predominantly Sunni Muslim world, it is the Shi'ite "Party of God" -- Hizballah -- that is seen to be standing up to Israel. And it is Iran that inspired and still backs Hizballah, while most other countries do nothing.

Iran, Syria, And Hizballah

Iran, Syria, And Hizballah

Iranians demonstrating in support of Hizballah in Tehran on July 17 (epa)

'FOR THE SAKE OF LEBANON': The Islamic Republic of Iran has served as an ideological inspiration for Hizballah since the Lebanese militant group's creation in 1982, and Tehran acknowledges that it supports the organization morally and politically. "Yes, we are friends of Syria and Iran" Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said. "For 24 years we benefited from our friendship with Syria and Iran for the sake of Lebanon...." (more)


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