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IRAN'S CATSPAW
HEZBOLLAH SERVING ISLAMIC REPUBLIC'S BID TO LEAD ARABS
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
July 23, 2006

July 23, 2006 -- 'YOU are the Sun of Islam, shin ing on the universe!" This is how mullah Muhammad Kha tami, the president of the Is lamic Republic of Iran until last year, described the Lebanese Hezbollah in a message this month. Addressed to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Hezballah, the message highlights the importance of the Lebanese Shiite militia in Iran's strategy.

It would be no exaggeration to describe the Hezbollah as Tehran's regional trump card. Each time Tehran played it, it won.

In 1982, the Islamic Republic had virtually no influence in Lebanon. The Lebanese Shiiite bourgeoisie that had ties with Iran under the shah was horrified by Khomeini's populist discourse, while poorer Shiite masses looked to the clergy in Iraqi Najaf for guidance.

The Islamic Republic needed a bridgehead in Lebanon, and asked its ambassador to Damascus, radical mullah Ali-Akbar Mohtashami-Pour, to create one. Mohtashami-Pour opened a Lebanese branch of the Iranian Hezbollah (Party of God) founded in 1975 by Ayatollah Hadi Ghaffari. Hundreds of Iranian mullahs, political "educators" and Islamic Revolutionary Guardsmen were sent to Beirut to set up the branch. They united several radical Shiite groups (including some with Marxist backgrounds) under the Hezbollah brand name.

Soon, the Islamic Republic started playing its Hezbollah card to exert pressure on France, Britain and the United States, which it saw as sponsors of Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. Throughout the 1980s, the Hezbollah kidnapped more than 200 foreign nationals in Lebanon, most of them Americans or Western Europeans. It also organized suicide attacks against U.S. and French targets, killing almost 1,000 people, including 241 U.S. Marines and 56 French paratroopers.

The campaign produced results. France reduced her support for Saddam Hussein. The United States went further, supplying the Islamic Republic with anti-tank missiles (shipped via Israel), helping tip the war in favor of Iran. In exchange, the Islamic Republic ordered the Hezbollah to release French and American hostages in small batches spread over years.

ONCE the Iran-Iraq war was over, Tehran found other uses for its Leb anese assets. It purged and then reshaped the Hezbollah to influence the broader course of regional politics while waging a low-intensity war against Israel.

In 2000, when the Israelis decided to evacuate the strip they controlled in Lebanon, Tehran presented the event as, in Khatami's words, the "first victory of Islam over the Zionist-Crusader camp."

To prop up that myth, Tehran invested in a propaganda campaign that included TV "documentaries," full-length feature films, books and magazine articles. The message was simple: While secular ideologies - from pan-Arabism to Arab socialism - failed to liberate an inch of Arab territory, Islamism, in its Khomeinist version, had achieved "total victory" over Israel in Lebanon.

Since 1982, Iran has created branches of the Hezbollah in more than 20 countries. None has equaled the success of the Lebanese branch, which, until recently, enjoyed something akin to a cult status among Arabs, including non-Muslims.

The beauty of all this is that the Lebanese branch has not cost the Islamic Republic as much as might be expected.

The project started with just $25 million. After that, according to best estimates, the Islamic Republic spent $60 million to $100 million a year on its Lebanese assets.

Even if we add the cost of training Hezbollah fighters and equipping them with hardware, the Lebanese branch could not have cost the Islamic Republic more than $2.5 billion over two decades. And, that, as students of geopolitics know, is small change compared to the stakes involved.

OVER the years, the Lebanese branch has been woven into the Islamic Re public's body politic.

Many Hezbollah militants and officials have married into Iranian religious families, often connected to influential ayatollahs. Dozens of Lebanese Shiites have worked and continue to work in the Iranian administration, especially in the ministries of security, information and culture, for short or long stints. Since the mid 1980s, most Lebanese Shiite clerics have trained in Iran. In exchange, thousands of Islamic Republic security officers and Revolutionary Guardsmen have lived and worked in Lebanon and, in many cases, forged family links with the locals. Systematic intermingling with Iranians means that Hezbollah's younger cadres speak Arabic with a Persian accent.

The Lebanese branch has also played a role in eliminating the Islamic Republic's enemies abroad. At least 20 Lebanese are in European prison on charges of involvement in the murder of some of the 117 Iranian exiles "eliminated" in Europe between 1982 and 2000.

Treated as a reserve force of shock-troopers for the Islamic Republic, the Lebanese branch on several occasions has sent militants to Iran to help crush anti-regime street demonstrations. Such missions are facilitated by the fact that an estimated 60,000 Lebanese Shiites have acquired Iranian citizenship. More recently, the Lebanese branch served as the conduit for shipment of Iranian arms to pro-Tehran militant groups in Iraq.

As Ali Yunesi, the Islamic Republic's former security minister, once put it: "Iran is Hezbollah, and Hezbollah is Iran."

BUT why did Tehran decide to play its Lebanese card now?

Part of the answer lies in Washington's decision last May to reverse its policy toward the Islamic Republic and seek an accommodation by offering major concessions. Tehran interpreted that as a sign of weakness and a confirmation of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's belief that (thanks to the Hidden Imam) the Islamic Republic is heading for victory over the U.S.-led "infidel."

Ahmadinejad believes that his strategy to drive the "infidel" out of the Islamic heartland cannot succeed unless Arabs accept Iran's leadership. But this is not easy to sell to the majority of Arabs, who are Sunni, for the Khomeinist regime is Shiite.

To overcome that hurdle, it is necessary to persuade the Arabs that only Iran is sincere in its desire to wipe Israel off the map and has the power to do so. Once the Arabs buy that claim, Ahmadinejad hopes, they will rally behind his vision of the Middle East, as opposed to the "American vision."

That strategy pushed Israel to the top of Tehran's agenda. This is why Tehran decided to adopt the Palestinian Hamas movement, left an orphan by Arab powers that had rallied behind Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah movement.

Ahmadinejad has also managed to convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abandon the temptation to switch to the American side. Last month, Syria signed a military agreement with the Islamic Republic - acknowledging Iran's position as leader of a new "Rejection Front." In exchange, the Islamic Republic's "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei declared that he would regard any attack on Syria as an attack on Iran.

THE mini-war between Israel and the Lebanese branch of the Hezbollah is, in fact, a proxy war in which Tehran's vision for the Middle East clashes with Washington's rival vision. Just as Washington cannot afford to let Israel lose, or even bow to a cease-fire that could be interpreted as a victory for Hezbollah, Tehran may be forced to back the Lebanese branch to the hilt - even if that means a larger war.

What is at stake is not the exchange of kidnapped Israeli soldiers with Arab prisoners in Israel. Such exchanges have happened routinely over five decades. The real issue is: Who will set the agenda for the Middle East - the Islamic Republic and its allies, or the United States and its allies?

Iranian author Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.

 

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