July 21, 2006, Volume 6, Number 4
CRISIS IN THE MIDDLE EAST
IRAN PLAYING KEY ROLE IN ISRAEL-LEBANON CRISISBy Bill Samii
As the conflict initiated by Hizballah's seizure of two Israeli soldiers and killing of another eight in a cross-border raid on July 12 continues, many observers are voicing concern that other regional actors -- notably, Iran and Syria -- will be drawn into the conflict.
Iran has warned that it will respond if Israel attacks Syria. Realistically, however, Iran and Syria have been involved with this conflict from the outset because they are the main outside sponsors of Hizballah. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton alluded to this relationship on July 14 at the UN Security Council in New York. "No reckoning with Hizballah will be adequate without a reckoning with its principal state sponsors of terror," Bolton said.
Israel Points Fingers At Tehran
Within hours of Israeli retaliation for the raid and commencement of efforts to recover its soldiers, Israeli officials began assigning some responsibility for the Hizballah attack to Iran.
"There is an axis of terror and hate, created by Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas that wants to end any hope for peace," said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry website.
Major General Udi Adam, chief of the Israeli Defense Forces' Northern Command, added: "Hizballah, which is a terror organization, operates from inside Lebanese soil with Iran's assistance and financial aid," Jerusalem's Channel 2 television reported. "Iran signed a defense treaty with Syria not too long ago, which is why they are all one single package."
"We know for a fact, and you know it too, that Iran supports these organizations," Adam asserted, while also assigning some blame to Lebanon's government.
Tehran Talks Tough
Iranian reaction was not immediately forthcoming. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad had been touring East Azerbaijan Province for several days, where he gave several speeches excoriating Israel.
"There are also some countries that claim to be democracies and supporters of freedom and human rights but which keep silent when this regime [Israel] bombs Lebanon in front of their eyes and slaughters people in their houses," Ahmadinejad said in Sarab on July 13, state television reported. "They keep silent and they support murderers with their silence."
Countries that stay silent will be viewed as Israel's "accomplices," he said, and will be judged accordingly. In Tehran the same day, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned Israeli actions, IRNA reported.
As hostilities entered their second day on July 13, the Israeli Foreign Ministry voiced concern that its missing soldiers will be sent to Iran.
"We also have specific information that Hizballah is planning to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran," the ministry's statement said, according to the government's press office.
Although Iran has rejected the possibility that the Israelis will be transferred there, such speculation has historical echoes. Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986, was reportedly sent to Iran. It is also believed that William Buckley, the Central Intelligence Agency's Beirut chief of station, who was taken hostage in 1984, was sent to Iran for interrogation. He was tortured to death.
The same July 13 Israeli government statement added that Iran is Hizballah's "main benefactor" and provides "funding, weapons, and directives."
"For all practical purposes, Hizballah is merely an arm of the Tehran jihadist regime," the Israeli government asserted.
The statement argued that Iranian and Syrian support to groups like Hizballah, Hamas, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is ideologically driven, but also serves as a diversion from other international issues.
A Long History Of Ties
Some Iranian connections with Hizballah and Hamas are well documented. Larijani was in Damascus on July 12 and, according to KUNA, he met with Hamas leader Khalid Mishaal and leading figures from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and other groups. He was to meet with a Hizballah delegation, KUNA added, but the Lebanese could not come.
Representatives from all these groups participated in a conference in Tehran in April, and they participated in similar events in Tehran in 2001 and 2002. Furthermore, they met with Ahmadinejad when he visited Damascus in January 2006, and they frequently meet with Iranian officials in the Syrian capital and travel to Iran.
Tehran has never tried to hide its support for these groups, which it views as legitimate resistance movements, and it has taken the lead in trying to raise funds for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.
Among all these groups, Tehran's relationship with Hizballah is the closest. Iranian officials had a leading role in the creation of Hizballah in the early 1980s, and the organization's ideology is based on the Iranian theocratic system of Vilayat-i Faqih. Although it has never renounced its platform of creating an Islamist government similar to Iran's, Hizballah now operates within the Lebanese political system, with its members running for office and serving in the cabinet and the legislature.
A visitor to the Hizballah press office in southern Beirut will see pictures of the founder of Iran's Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and of the country's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Travelers in other predominantly Shi'ite parts of Lebanon will note the numerous posters of these Iranian clerics as well. Hizballah hospitals and schools continue to receive funds from Iran's Martyrs' Foundation.
The U.S government, which classifies Hizballah as a terrorist organization, has asserted that Iran provides Hizballah with funding and weapons. Press reports from September 2002 note U.S. claims that Iran provided surface-to-surface rockets to Hizballah, and there are repeated allegations that Tehran provides Hizballah with millions of dollars annually.
Tehran dismisses such accusations, saying it supports Hizballah only with moral and political backing.
Hizballah has repeatedly denied, furthermore, that it is directed by the Iranian government. Most recently, on July 15, Mahmud Qamati, deputy chairman of the Hizballah Political Council, told Al-Jazeera: "We would like to confirm today that the Iranians or Syrians have nothing at all to do with the actions of the resistance in Lebanon, or with the confrontation of the Israeli aggression." He said such allegations are meant to pressure the two countries to force Hizballah to disarm, as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1559.
Israeli sources claimed on July 15 that an Iranian C802 shore-to-ship missile that was operated by Iranians struck an Israeli Navy vessel off the Lebanese coast. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut denied on the same day that any of the country's military personnel are in Lebanon, Al-Alam television and the Lebanese National News Agency reported. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied on July 16 that Iranian missiles were used.
The UN Weighs In
Iran's support for Hizballah on Lebanon concerns the international community. A UN report in April said the cooperation of Iran and Syria is needed to bring about the disarmament of all Lebanese militias, and it referred to Hizballah as "the most significant Lebanese militia." The subsequent Security Council Resolution 1680, which was issued in May, cited Syria's negative influence on Lebanese affairs and indirectly referred to Iranian influence.
The relationship between Tehran and Damascus has grown warmer in recent years, as both Iran and Syria face increasing international pressure. The two countries have signed military agreements, and their chief executives have exchanged visits.
Ahmadinejad telephoned President Bashar al-Assad on July 13 and declared that an attack on Syria would be an attack on the Islamic world and would elicit a response, Hizballah's Al-Manar television, Iranian state radio, and SANA reported.
Iranian Friday Prayer leaders' sermons, the content of which is determined in Tehran by the 10-member executive board of the Central Secretariat of the Central Council of Friday Prayer Leaders, has echoed this theme, as well as support for Hizballah. In Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani encouraged Muslims to back Hamas and Hizballah, the actions of which he described as "self-defense," state radio reported. In the southern city of Ahvaz, Ayatollah Musavi-Jazayeri said Hizballah has "smashed the myth of [Israeli] invincibility" and described Hizballah's actions as "a source of pride for the world of Islam," provincial television reported.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in Tehran on July 16 that the most recent events in Lebanon and the Palestine territories prove that "the presence of the Zionists in the region is a satanic and cancerous presence and an infected tumor for the entire world of Islam," state television reported. (Originally published on July 17.)
SYRIA, IRAN LOOM LARGER IN ISRAEL-LEBANON CRISISBy Charles Recknagel
Israel is now fighting with Islamic militias in two theaters from which it previously thought its military had permanently withdrawn.
As it wages an air campaign against Hizballah in southern Lebanon, and an air-and-ground campaign against Hamas in Gaza, Israel's frustration is mounting. Even as it vows to break the backs of both militias, Israel knows it cannot crush the militant groups without also curbing their sponsors.
Pointing The Finger At Damascus And Tehran
So recent days have seen Israeli officials increasingly singling out Syria and Iran as the source of the problem they now face. "The reason we see now this deterioration, it is because of a premeditated attack or strategy that unfortunately is being concocted in Damascus and in Tehran," Israeli Ambassador to the United States Daniel Ayalon told journalists in Washington on July 12.
Ayalon said that Iran, despite its distance from Israel, has two goals. The first is to work for the "Islamic radicalization" of the region in hopes of creating more theocratic states like its own.
Tehran's other goal, according to Ayalon, is to distract the international community from Iran's nuclear program, which he said aims at acquiring nuclear weapons.
Other officials in Israel have also been calling attention to Tehran. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, said on July 13 that there was concern Hizballah would attempt to move the two captured Israeli soldiers to Iran.
Tehran immediately rejected that charge, with Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi saying Israel is "talking absurdities."
Iran Answers Back
Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad vowed to help Syria-- which shares a defense pact with Iran -- if it is attacked. "If the occupying regime [Israel] commits another stupid move and attacks Syria, this will be considered as an attack against the whole Islamic world and that regime will receive a fierce response," read a statement by Ahmadinejad that was broadcast on state television on July 13.
Analysts say that as the tensions rise, the possibilities for state-to-state warfare increase.
Heading Toward War?
Mouin Rabbani, a Middle East expert at the International Crisis Group in Amman, sees the danger of the conflict widening into an Israeli-Syrian showdown as the most pressing.
"That is a distinct possibility," Rabbani says. "There is the possibility that Israel could choose to escalate the conflict to include Syria. And there is also the possibility that if Israel continues pounding Lebanon and vastly escalates its campaign there that Syria would try intervene to come to the assistance of Lebanon, which could also produce an Israeli-Syrian confrontation."
The danger could be increased by the limited room that exists for diplomatic solutions. Two of the most obvious brokers -- the United States and the United Nations -- are not favorably regarded by Damascus.
U.S. President George W. Bush on July 13 blamed Damascus for supporting Hizballah, saying that the Israeli soldiers "need to be returned" and Syrian President Bashar Assad "needs to show some leadership toward peace."
Washington has few trade and diplomatic ties with Damascus, and some U.S. officials have called for regime change there.
The UN is unwelcome in Damascus because of its continuing investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. That investigation has linked Syria to the killing.
That would leave any broker's role to a European country such as Germany -- which has played a leading role in previous negotiations between Hizballah and Israel. But such a player -- which would certainly exercise little leverage over either Syria or Israel -- would need great goodwill on both sides to succeed.
Geography Plays A Role
Rabbani says he sees little likelihood of an armed Israeli-Syrian conflict widening to include Iran -- despite Tehran's recent vow to come to the aid of its defense-pact partner.
"I am assuming that Iran's statements yesterday were motivated in large part to dissuade Israel from any plans it may have to attack Syria," Rabbani said. "But its difficult to say to what extent Iran would come to Syria's active support. I mean, geographic distance does play a role here, and I find it extremely unlikely that Iran, which is probably also preoccupied with preparations of its own against any potential American and/or Israeli attack on Iranian territory, I find it extremely unlikely that it is now going to use whatever retaliatory measures it may have found against Israel in Syria's defense."
As the crisis continues, both Hizballah and Hamas are sticking to their conditions for ending it.
Hizballah has said it is ready to exchange the two soldiers for prisoners held by Israel. Analysts say that obtaining such an exchange was the militia's intention in launching a cross-border raid into Israel on July 12.
Hamas is also seeking a prisoner exchange. But analysts say that as the crisis in Gaza has grown, Palestinian demands appear to be widening to also include an end to Israeli security operations and assassinations in the Palestinian territories. (Originally published on July 14.)
THE PARTY OF GODIn May 2000, Hizballah won the respect of many Lebanese when it took credit for Israel's withdrawal from southern Lebanon. An Israeli military pullout of Lebanon had always been the goal of the Iranian-inspired Shi'ite movement, which first emerged during the bloody Lebanese civil war in the early 1980s.
Yet its spiritual and intellectual origins go back further. "The origin of this is not in the early '80s," says Lebanese-born Nadim Shehadi, director of Oxford University's Center for Lebanese Studies in Britain. "The origin late '50s, early '60s. The root of it is a reaction to the higher clergy and to the dominant ideology of the Shi'ite establishment, which was to suffer in silence and wait for the second coming of the Mehdi, the 12th imam, who will then spread justice in the world."
Hizballah wanted to take an active role and found its inspiration in Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The party's rhetoric calls for the destruction of Israel. It regards Palestine as occupied Muslim land. Israel, it says, has no right to exist.
In 1983, Hizballah-linked militants orchestrated the bombing of a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. troops. That attack eventually led to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region. Hizballah also was behind the kidnapping of some 30 Westerners between 1982 and 1992.
Fighting By Proxy
Like then, some analysts see today's fighting in Lebanon between Israel and Hizballah as a proxy conflict.
"The blowing up of the [U.S. Marine] barracks and the [1980s] hostage crisis was in a way a proxy confrontation between Iran and the United States, in Lebanon," Shehadi says. "And what you're seeing now, in a way, is a replica of this."
In the early days of existence, Hizballah was seen working closely with thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Based in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, the guards had been sent by Tehran to help drive Israeli troops out.
This past week, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert accused Iran of having Revolutionary Guard troops in Lebanon. Iran denies providing any military aid to Hizballah, but readily acknowledges its moral support of the movement.
"With this effort by Hizballah, the Lebanese people will have a better understanding of the value of Hizballah's resistance and arms and as the leader of our Islamic Revolution said, Hizballah will not be disarmed," said Iranian parliament speaker Gholam-Ali Hadad-Adel during a July 18 speech to a Tehran rally.
The Radicalization Of Southern Lebanon
At one time, the movement's leadership dreamed of transforming Lebanon's multiconfessional state into an Iranian-style Shi'ite Islamic state. That idea also appealed to many Hizballah supporters in southern Lebanon, where the movement is seen as an organic outgrowth of the local population.
"Hizballah is part and parcel of the population of south Lebanon," Shehadi says. "It's a resistance movement that emerged from the radicalization of the population of south Lebanon following the Israeli invasion of 1982 and the occupation of south Lebanon."
But along the way, Hizballah came to abandon its visions of an Islamic state in favor of a more open attitude toward the rest of Lebanese society and to take part in parliamentary elections. It's an approach that has proven successful.
Shi'a are Lebanon's biggest community, comprising one-third of the population, Hizballah has a significant presence in parliament. It has built broad support by providing social services and health care. And it has an influential television station, Al-Manar, which Israel has targeted with air strikes this week.
Still, it's Hizballah's military wing, the Islamic Resistance, that is helping to fuel the current crisis. The military wing violates the Taifa Agreement that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989. It also violates UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which in 2004 called for the disbanding and disarming of all militias in Lebanon and helped lead to Syria's military pullout last year.
Hizballah cites two immediate motives for maintaining its militia along the Israel-Lebanon border.
One is the detention of prisoners from Lebanon in Israeli jails. Hizballah's cross-border raid to kill and capture Israeli soldiers last week, which triggered the current crisis, was ostensibly intended to obtain leverage to get Israel to agree to a prisoner swap.
"There is only one way for these [Israeli] prisoners that we have to go home: indirect negotiations and [prisoner] exchange and peace," said Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah during a July 12 news conference in Beirut. "Nobody in the entire world can take them back home except through indirect negotiations and exchange."
The Syrian Factor
Hizballah's second reason for maintaining its militia is an area known as the Shebaa Farms. With broad backing among the Lebanese population, Hizballah says Shebaa Farms is Lebanese territory.
But Israel and the UN say the area is part of the Golan Heights -- that is, Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.
With Iran, Syria has long been seen as Hizballah's chief benefactor. Diplomats say Damascus uses Hizballah as a card to play in its conflict with Israel over the Golan Heights.
In the current crisis, the United States has accused both Syria and Iran of in effect "playing the Hizballah card" to pursue their own regional interests.
Those interests were particularly affected by last year's withdrawal from Lebanon of Syrian troops, after Damascus was widely blamed for the assassination of Lebanese former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria denies any involvement.
But in the anti-Syria frenzy that swept Lebanon following Hariri's killing, pro-Syrian Hizballah ironically emerged as the country's most powerful military force.
It even gained a seat in Lebanon's multiconfessional cabinet -- a government that U.S. President George W. Bush said on July 18 must not be toppled in the current conflict. (Originally published on July 20.)