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VICTORY IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER
by Amir Taheri
New York Post
August 2, 2006

Although no one knows how the war in Lebanon might end, one thing is already clear: Anything short of victory could endanger Hizbullah's very existence as a major player in the country. To be sure, victory is often in the eye of the beholder, or rather on the tongues of those who claim it.

A UN-sponsored cease-fire that allows Hizbullah to maintain part of its military wherewithal while forcing Israel to release the prisoners Hassan Nasrallah wants freed would be sufficient for the sheikh to claim victory. In fact Hizbullah, in line with Iranian and Syrian propaganda, is already preparing the ground for claiming victory on the basis of the fact that it has managed to fight Israel longer than major Arab armies in four previous wars.

The state-controlled media in Teheran and Damascus have highlighted claims by several Western newspapers and magazines, including The Independent and Newsweek, that Hizbullah has already won the war.

TO PERSUADE other Lebanese communities and factions to endorse his gestating victory claim, Nasrallah has provided a curious analysis. In a television appearance last week he said that in case of victory Hizbullah would not use its power against political rivals in Lebanon. The message is: Help me claim victory, and I will let you live!

On the other hand, a clearly defeated Hizbullah might try to cover its humiliation by plunging Lebanon into a new civil war.

Would such a stratagem be sufficient to guard Nasrallah against the consequences of his decision to trigger the war? No.

Nasrallah has been described by his mentor, Iran's "Supreme Guide" Ali Khamenei, as "the beloved of masses all over the world." But the truth is Nasrallah's leadership was questioned within Hizbullah even before the war began.

THERE ARE four sources of tension within Hizbullah.

One is between those who see Hizbullah as nothing but a branch of a worldwide pan-Islamist movement, led by Iran, and those who wish to emphasize its Lebanese identity. The latter are represented by followers of Sheikh Subhi Tufeili, one of Hizbullah's original founders and now a leading Nasrallah critic.

The "Lebanists," as they are sometimes called, believe that a small country like Lebanon cannot afford to get involved in struggles among regional and outside big powers.

In private many Lebanists speak harshly of Nasrallah's "adventurism" prompted by Iranian and Syrian calculations.

The second tension is between the military and intelligence cadres of Hizbullah on the one hand, and its political personnel on the other. The reported return of Imad Mughnieh, a controversial figure who has lived in Iran for 20 years, as a Hizbullah commander in the current war, has angered many Lebanese Shi'ites who wish to shed their community's image as a breeding ground for terrorism.

Hizbullah political figures, including some of its representatives in the Lebanese parliament, make no secret of their resentment of the fact that Nasrallah never consults them on broad policies.

The decision to trigger the current war came as a surprise to most of Hizbullah's political figures, while the military and intelligence cadres were informed immediately after Nasrallah finalized a deal with Iranian and Syrian officials.

Similar tensions have always existed within movements that combine violence and terror with political action. In the case of Hizbullah that tension is stronger if only because many Lebanese Shi'ites do not see the need for giving the military and intelligence elite of the party the last word.

Shi'ites now represent the largest religious community in Lebanon and could defend and advance their interests through normal political channels thanks to their demographic advantage.

THE THIRD source of tension is between those Shi'ites who regard the US as an unexpected ally and those who, sharing Nasrallah's analysis, profess hatred for "The American Great Satan." Nasrallah's critics claim he is deliberately misreading current realities solely because he is too beholden to Iran and Syria.
These critics point out that the US has helped Iraqi Shi'ites to shake off Sunni oppression and dominate their nation's government for the first time. The US has also helped Afghan Hazara Shi'ites to have a share in their nation's government - again for the very first time. Shi'ites also look to the US to help their coreligionists secure their rights in other countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

More importantly, perhaps, the US played a crucial role in ending Syria's military presence in Lebanon, opening the way for the development of a pluralist system in which Shi'ites, thanks to their demographic strength, would be in the lead.

Finally, there is tension between those who believe that the Shi'ite community in Lebanon should develop and uphold its own clerical leadership and those who look to Qom, in Iran, or Najaf, in Iraq, for guidance.

Nasrallah has made his bay'a (pledge of loyalty) to Khamenei as the "Source of Emulation" and "Supreme Guide" for Shi'ites all over the world.

NASRALLAH highlights his position as a follower of Khamenei by kissing the hand of the Iranian leader whenever the two meet. Few Lebanese Shi'ites, however, share his allegiance to Khamenei, who has never been accepted as a "source of emulation" in Iran itself. To most Lebanese Shi'ites Khamenei is a political rather than religious figure.

A majority of Lebanese Shi'ites, including those who support the Amal (Hope) M\movement, a rival of Hizbullah, regard Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani in Najaf as the primus inter pares of Shi'ite clergy. Nasrallah, however, has sided with Moqtada Sadr, an Iraqi junior mullah who has tried to undermine Sistani's position in Najaf, so far unsuccessfully. (Nasrallah and Sadr are distant cousins.)

The ambitions of Sayyid Hussein Fadhlallah, a mid-ranking cleric and a former pupil of Sistani in Najaf, further complicate the question of religious leadership of Lebanese Shi'ites. In terms of scholarship Fadhlallah is certainly more qualified than Khamenei, who never managed to obtain a degree in ijtihad (religious ruling.)

Some Lebanese Shi'ites, including many Hizbullah supporters, have adopted Fadhlallah as "source of emulation" and take pride in the first time a Lebanese theologian can claim that position.

As long as Nasrallah controlled the party, thanks largely to Iranian money and political support from Teheran and Damascus, none of the above issues could be brought into the open. The current war may loosen that control, allowing other views to be expressed within the movement.

Nasrallah built his Stalinist leadership on the basis of his mythical victory in 2000, when Ehud Barak evacuated the strip of land Israel controlled in southern Lebanon.

A new mythical victory could give Nasrallah's leadership another lease of life, producing more grief for Lebanon, Israel and the whole region.

It would be foolish to hand him such a "victory."

The writer, an Iranian author and journalist, is editor of the Paris-based Politique Internationale.

 

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