Prague, 14 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is giving a high profile to Iran's relations with the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah as he visits Syria, despite the displeasure the gesture is sure to cause in the West.
Khatami is due to meet today in Damascus with the secretary general of the Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. No word is available yet on the subject of their talks.
The meeting is sure to irritate Western states which link the Hezbollah, or Party of God, to a series of attacks on Americans and Europeans during the later years of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war. The attacks included the 1983 bombing of a U.S. barracks in Beirut which killed 241 marines and the kidnappings of more than 50 foreigners.
Khatami's step comes just two months after the moderate Iranian president made a ground-breaking first trip to an EU state by visiting Italy. During that trip he stressed that Tehran rejects terrorism. Now, his visit with Nasrallah is almost certain to fuel new charges from Washington that Tehran continues funding terrorist groups abroad, despite Iran's claims that the Hezbollah is not a terrorist organization and that it receives no Iranian money.
Analysts say that Khatami's readiness to meet with Hezbollah leaders despite such diplomatic costs is a measure of the kinship Tehran feels for the Lebanese Shiite group, which it helped to form in 1982. The Hezbollah, whose stated aim is to build an Islamic state in Lebanon, is one of the few groups abroad to respond to the Islamic Revolution's early efforts to spread its revolutionary message and it has kept close ties to Iran's leadership ever since.
Marius Deeb is an expert on the Hezbollah from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. He says the Hezbollah, along with Syria's permitting Iran to funnel support to it, represents the sole success today from the Islamic Republic's early foreign policy:
"Syria has allowed Iran to have influence in Lebanon and it is the only success story for Iran, I mean, Iran has no influence anywhere in the region, all the Shiia of Iraq, it cannot reach them, it has to support them underground, the Shiia of Bahrain, of course, are out of the question and [so are they] in Saudi Arabia. So it has no influence whatsoever except among the Shiias of Lebanon, thanks to Syria."
Deeb says that Damascus permits Iran to support the Hezbollah because the militia meets Syria's own goals in seeking to evict Israeli troops from south Lebanon. The group formed during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and its militia launches almost daily attacks against Israel's remaining security zone in the south of the country.
Damascus -- the undisputed powerbroker in Lebanon -- hopes the Hezbollah's attacks will ultimately pressure Israel to come to a regional peace agreement with both Lebanon and Syria. Syrian President Hafaz al-Assad has said that any security guarantees in south Lebanon must be linked to Israel's returning the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in 1967. It's a deal Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused.
Tehran, for its part, has been violently opposed to Israel since the Islamic Revolution and continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish state. Deeb and other analysts say that over the years Tehran and Damascus have come to a working understanding by which Iran provides the Hezbollah with ideological and financial support, while Syria provides weapons and logistical support for its day to day operations in southern Lebanon.
Western analysts estimate that Tehran provides the Hezbollah some 100 million dollars in funding each year. The group is believed to have some 5,000 fighters across Lebanon and is capable of pulling tens of thousands of supporters to its rallies. It also operates television and radio stations as well as schools and hospitals in the Shiite community, which is Lebanon's biggest sect and makes up about one-third of its total population.
Over the years, the Islamic Hezbollah has had some disagreements with the secular Syrian government. The Hezbollah sprang originally from a Syrian-backed rival Lebanese Shiite group, the Amal, which it rejected as being too secular. Such differences led to a brief crackdown against Hezbollah by Damascus in 1987. But the militia has fully accepted Assad's pre-eminence since Syrian troops moved into Lebanon in the 1990's to end the civil war. Assad continues to keep some 35,000 soldiers in Lebanon and now is considered to virtually control the smaller country.
Analysts say that today some of the ideological reasons for Tehran to support the Hezbollah are waning, as the group itself has had to scale back its ambitions to build an Islamic state in Lebanon.
Deeb says the Hezbollah now accepts that it is not possible to create an Islamic state in Lebanon's pluralistic society.
"There was a euphoria with the Islamic Revolution in the 1980's that the Iranian revolution would spread and have a tremendous influence and the Shiia of Lebanon who support Hezbollah, just only 10 percent [of the community], they thought of an Islamic republic. But of course, you know, it is not practical. The Islamic republic will not be accepted by the Christians, the Druze and also by the Sunni."
Lebanon's population includes some two million Muslims and some 1.5 million Christians and other groups.
In recent years, the group has focused instead on gaining political power to advance Shiite interests. The Hezbollah won seven seats in Lebanon's last parliamentary elections and works in coalition with an additional two Sunni deputies, giving it control of 9 of the legislature's 128 seats. It also competed heavily in municipal elections last summer, taking control of the southern city of Nabatiyeh and making political strongholds out of Beirut's southern suburbs and areas around Baalbek.
But even as the Hezbollah seems to be moving away from the early ideological goals of the Islamic Revolution, its attachment to Tehran remains strong and current. On a trip to Tehran last year, Hezbollah leaders announced that they accept not only the Islamic Revolution's founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, as a source of Shiite religious emulation, but also his successor and Iran's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. They also stressed their respect for President Khatami.
Deeb says that the Iranian government, in turn, remains committed to the Hezbollah despite any splits in Tehran between moderates and hardliners over other issues. He says that Iran considers the millions it has spent on the Hezbollah well invested despite Iran's own economic problems and predicts the funding will continue as long as Syria permits it.