Monday, March 13, 2006

As Syria's Influence in Lebanon Wanes, Iran Moves In

Michael Slackman, The New York Times:
Nearly a year ago, not long after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, who was twice prime minister of Lebanon, Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon, unleashing a wave of patriotism here that prompted many to say that the Lebanese might finally be able to take control of their destiny.

But the intensity of the moment and the rush of emotions eclipsed at least one important and largely unanswerable question: With Syria gone, or at least its troops gone, who would fill the power vacuum?

At the time, Iran did not appear to be the answer. But that is what is happening, according to government officials, political leaders and political analysts here.

Iran, long a powerful player in Lebanon, has been able to increase its influence, partly through its ties to the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. That has given Tehran a stronger hand to play in its confrontation with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program.

Should the nuclear showdown go badly for Iran, the government could rely on its surrogates in Lebanon as well as its influence in Iraq, or use oil for a weapon. In Lebanon, the Iranians could contribute to the kind of retribution they have promised as a payback, from a strike across the border into Israel, to a more forceful flexing that could paralyze the Lebanese government, political analysts and government officials said.

While Iran helped create, finance and train Hezbollah, it was Syria that settled scores and managed relations between Shiite factions and Palestinians throughout Lebanon. Syria was a filter between Tehran and Hezbollah, and now that Syria has been uprooted, Iran and Hezbollah can work much more closely.

Members of Hezbollah have become members of the government for the first time, magnifying the importance of the ties between Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement.

That is the downside for the United States, and for Lebanon as well, officials here said. Unity remains elusive as Lebanon continues to be a playing field for foreign interests.

"There is without any doubt a growing Iranian influence not only in Lebanon but in the whole region," said Nassib Lahoud, a Maronite Christian who is a former ambassador to the United States and a legislator. "We are trying to build normal relations with everyone, and we refuse to turn Lebanon into a battlefield for regional and international powers."

Political leaders met here recently for what was billed as the start of a national dialogue, a chance to try to resolve long-simmering disputes. There was to be discussion about disarming militias like Hezbollah and figuring out what to do about President Émile Lahoud, a staunch ally of Syria, who has clung to his office even as his ability to govern has withered under pressure to resign.

But even before the meetings began, government officials conceded that Lebanon's ability to resolve some of its most vexing domestic conflicts would depend on decisions made in Tehran and Washington. READ MORE

Charles Rizk, Lebanon's minister of justice, said that as Iran's and Hezbollah's influence grew in Lebanon, the country's hopes for unity hinged on whether Iran and the United States would at least agree to talk to each other. It is an idea, officials here acknowledge, that appears as remote as a Syria-Israel peace deal. But as a nation unusually susceptible to outside influences, officials said, that is Lebanon's reality.

"I hope that by America inaugurating a process of détente with Iran, this will reverberate into more consensus in Lebanon," Mr. Rizk said. "This is the only chance for us to solve our problems."

For years, Iran had been a kind of second lieutenant to Syria, important, influential and spiritually linked to the Hezbollah militia in a way that the Alawite leadership of Syria never could have been.

But with Syrian troops dug in, and Syrian intelligence agents running the show, Tehran's role was often more behind the scenes. In the 1980's, during the Lebanese civil war, Syria established its dominant position when it brokered a deal between the Shiite militias, Amal and Hezbollah, and settled the feuds in the Palestinian camps. After that, Iran found itself one step removed from the surrogates it helped create.

Then, suddenly, Syria found itself in retreat.

Iran saw an opportunity and began to press ahead with its established relationships in Lebanon, and with trying to build new ones. Lebanese officials and academics and religious leaders were increasingly feeling the generosity of the Iranian state, officials said, with invitations to conferences in Iran and offers of aid.

Lebanese officials say that Iran has been careful not to appear heavy-handed, so as not to alienate Sunni, Druse and Christian factions. After years under the fist of Damascus, many people here said that Iranian power was preferable because of geography — Tehran is far away — and because the Iranians appeared to be more intent on winning allegiances, not forcing them.

"Iran is omnipresent in Lebanon, not only with Hezbollah," said Ridwan al-Sayyid, an adviser to the prime minister and a professor of Islamic studies at Lebanese University. "They are strong, not like Syria, but they shape their presence in different ways. They are helping many, many organizations — Sunnis, Shias and Christians. They are benevolent."

This is not the first time that the United States has seen Iran benefit, however unintentionally, from events that were initially regarded as strengthening the Bush administration's hand. With each American military strike in the region, first against the Taliban in Afghanistan and then against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iran has found its influence in the region grow as its enemies have been defeated by American military might, political analysts said.

"Iran now has many more cards in confronting the United States than the United States has in confronting Iran," said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

Now it appears that Syria's withdrawal from Lebanon increases the Iranian mullah's influence. A recent political alliance between Hezbollah and Gen. Michel Aoun, leader of the largest Christian bloc in Parliament, was viewed by one political analyst with close ties to the government as a "tactical victory" for Iran.

"It's because Syria has been deflated very much, Iran is rising as a force," Mr. Rizk said.

Ahmed Fatfat, the acting interior minister, said, "I believe that Iran's role in Lebanon has become stronger, and if you look at its relationship with Hezbollah it is stronger."

What this means, officials said, is that as long as the United States and Iran are at odds Lebanon will remain, at best, in limbo. Lebanon will be unable to resolve its own domestic problems while Iran continues to try to build up its strategic position.

"If there is an Iranian-American clash, it will be played out here," Mr. Fatfat said.

Nada Bakri contributed reporting for this article.