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Not such a simple picture

The role of Iran in the region takes on a stronger dimension as Iran comes out in favor of Hizbullah

by Gareth Smyth

Back in January in Beirut, Sadreddine Sadr, the son of Imam Musa Sadr, told me Lebanon could never make peace with itself while “all sects, including my own, look to outside allies for support rather than to fellow Lebanese.”

While many Lebanese have in recent years expected the US, France, or the Saudis to solve Lebanon’s problems, a special and critical attention has focused on the Shia relationship with Iran. So it was refreshing to hear Mr. Sadr – a man fluent in both Farsi and Arabic, and who regards both Iran and Lebanon as home – speak with such candor.

Official position

Iran’s interest in Lebanon is a complex one, with roots in centuries-old relationships across the Shia world and with a modern history of personal, political and military links that shaped Tehran’s reaction to events unfolding after Hizbullah seized two Israeli soldiers on July 12.

Iran’s official position – endorsed on July 28 in a joint statement with Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh – was to call for an immediate ceasefire. Political leaders, including president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and influential former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, have accused the United States of trying to “recarve the map” of the Middle East in alliance with Israel. Ali Akbar Velayati, advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told a television roundtable that Hizbullah had foiled a US plan for Israel to occupy Lebanon as far as the Litani river and then introduce NATO forces.

At a popular level, anger at Israel’s onslaught with US support is more muted than in many Arab countries, but it real enough. While some Iranians complain at any official interest in Lebanon when Iran faces domestic problems like unemployment and inflation, genuine sympathy for the plight of the Lebanese goes far wider than political circles and staunch supporters of the Islamic Republic.

“Can you think of another country that would destroy its neighbour like this just because two soldiers are kidnapped?” asked a 45-year-old part-Jewish Tehran professional who has voted only once in Iranian elections. “The Israelis are killing children,” said a younger man in less affluent south Tehran, “And when I look at my own small son, I feel for those who are losing children because of Israel’s crazed political ambitions.”

Few analysts believe Iran’s official line that it is not supplying weapons to Hizbullah, although the more objective have been sceptical of some Israeli claims, suggesting, for example, that the C-802 anti-ship cruise missile that hit an Israeli warship, killing four sailors, was made in China, rather than Iran.

But there has been clear frustration among officials that Iran can do little to support Hizbullah fighters outgunned by Israel’s vastly superior military force.

“The most state-of-the-art weapons are in their hands, with satellite information at their disposal day and night,” said Ayatollah Nasser Makarem-Shirazi, one of the country’s senior clerics, during the second week of fighting. “Anyone who has advanced military aircraft can bomb inhabited areas and massacre defenceless people. But this is neither courage nor initiative in war – it nothing but weakness and abjectness.”

Western suspicion

There is also concern the fighting has increased wider regional instability. “The resistance of a few hundred Hizbullah fighters after two weeks of heavy bombardment is truly impressive, but the situation is still dangerous for Lebanon and the whole region,” said a leading reformist. Sadegh Kharrazi, Iran’s former ambassador to Paris, told me he feared Israel might “once again try and start sectarian conflict, or even civil war, in Lebanon” through their demand that Hizbullah be disarmed.

Aside from its work in the 56-member Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Iran’s diplomatic efforts have seen Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the influential former president, write to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah suggesting that “strong Saudi opposition to the brutal attacks of the occupying regime” could help push the US into revising its support for Israel.

Western speculation that Iran authorized Hizbullah’s capture of the Zionist soldiers centred on the July 11 visit of Ali Larijani, Iran’s top security official, to Damascus – even though Mr. Larijani’s visit, far from being secret, was widely reported in the Iranian media before the Hizbullah operation within the next 24 hours.

Tzipi Livni, Israel’s foreign minister, told Newsweek she was “sure” Iran had prior knowledge of the action. Analysts speculated Iran was trying to divert international attention from the stand-off over its nuclear program.

But British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett admitted to the Financial Times the west had no evidence of this, and Frank Gardiner, the respected BBC security correspondent, said his western intelligence sources said they had no hard evidence – either from human informants or from intercepted communications – that Iran had instructed Hizbullah to seize the two soldiers.

Whatever the excitement in the right-wing US and Israeli media, seasoned observers in Iran are unimpressed by the Iranian students volunteering for martyrdom operation against Israel. The groups organizing these theatrical sign-ups have never to date reported any of the members carrying out an attack.

There has been a sharp contrast in the tone of fundamentalist newspapers and more pragmatic officials in Iran, whether conservative or reformist. The hardline Kayhan and Jomhouri-ye Islami have extolled the bravery of the Resistance and demanded that the US remove the Zionist state from the Levant and relocate it to either mainland America or Europe.

But reformists and conservative pragmatists have spoken more of Lebanon’s right to self-defense and the need for negotiations – involving Iran and Syria – over the Middle East conflict. Mr. Kharrazi, who was removed as ambassador to Paris after Mr Ahmadinejad was elected last year, reiterated to me that Iran would support whatever solution in Palestine was backed by the Palestinians, quoting the Farsi proverb Kase-ye dagh-tar az aash (literally ‘the bowl cannot be hotter than the broth’).

But even before violence erupted in July, Tehran was already concerned over US attempts to reshape Lebanon, as was made very clear in a major speech by Ayatollah Khamenei in early June. Iran was never going to accept the US-Israeli agenda of disarming Hizbullah – the only Lebanese group that has ever resisted Israel with any degree of success – outside a wider political process in Lebanon. The Iranian media quickly seized on a Beirut Centre for Research and Information poll finding 87% support for Hizbullah’s retaliatory strikes on northern Israel and 70% support for the group’s capture of the two Israeli soldiers.

Cultural links

Outrage over South Lebanon is particularly vivid for clerics, officials and politicians with personal links to Lebanon. Mohammad Ali Abtahi, vice-president under Mohammad Khatami, was in Lebanon as the representative of state broadcasting for much of the 1990s, and former president Khatami himself has been invited to visit this month by the parliamentary speaker, Nabih Berri.

Religious and cultural links go back many centuries, even beyond the decision of Iran’s Safavid dynasty in the 16th century to convert Iran from Sunni to Shia Islam and to bring the holy men of Jabal Amil from South Lebanon as teachers.

Iran’s religious families are well aware that many of the villages and towns under Israeli attack are ‘holy ground’ as historical centres of Shiism. Meiss al-Jabal had an influential religious school from the 16th century, long before Iran became an Islamic Republic in 1979, before Israel was formed in 1948, and even before the birth of the US in 1776.

But even those with long memories and historical perspective sense that the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war is taking the Middle East into a fresh and volatile phase. For Iran, like the rest of the region, nothing is ever going to be quite the same again.

Gareth Smyth is the Tehran correspondent of the Financial Times. He has asked that his fee for this article be donated to help the suffering in Lebanon.

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Gareth Smyth

Gareth Smyth has reported from around the Middle East for more than two decades and is the former Financial Times correspondent in Tehran.

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