Saturday, July 22, 2006

In Iran’s Streets, Aid to Hezbollah Stirs Resentment

The New York Times:
There is a huge amount of anger here about what is happening in Lebanon, but it is not all the result of Israeli bombs, missiles and artillery.

Of course I am angry,’’ said Hamid Akbari, 30, a deliveryman. All our income is going to Palestine and Hezbollah.”

For decades, Iran has been Hezbollah’s prime patron, helping create it as a Shiite Muslim militia and then nurture it with money, expertise and weapons. But now that Hezbollah is in the midst of full-blown fighting with Israel, Iranian officials have been adamant in insisting that they had nothing to do with the events that set off the crisis.

Part of the reason may be fear, or concern, that the United States and Europe would punish Iran, if it were proved otherwise. But Iranian officials may have a wary eye on their public. In interviews in central Tehran Saturday, person after person said the same thing: Iran should worry about Iran’s problems and not be dragged down by others’ battles.

“We Iranians have a saying,” said Ali Reza Moradi, 35, a portrait artist who works in a small booth downtown. We should save our own house first and then save the mosque. A lot of people think this way. The government should help its people first, and then help the people in Lebanon.” READ MORE

With the ouster of the Sunni-led government in Iraq, and the routing of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran has seen its regional influence grow stronger. As the Sunni Arab capitals of Cairo, Amman, Jordan, and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, witnessed their own political influence in the region waning, Iran tried to fill the gap. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has become extremely popular among many Arabs for his strong anti-Western and anti-Israeli language. And Iran’s role as patron of Hezbollah and Hamas has given it unrivaled influence over two radical groups that have set the regional agenda, more so than governments.

But the picture in Iran itself is a bit more nuanced. Although Iran sits atop one of the largest known oil reserves, it cannot refine enough gasoline to meet its own needs — and so prices are rising. Mr. Ahmadinejad may have been elected on a populist economic message, but on the streets people report more pain, more unemployment and higher prices.

Hamidreza Jalaipour, a sociologist and former government official, said that on this point Iranians might agree but that they were also fickle.

Iranians are very sensitive and want our money to stay in the country and be spent for Iranians to solve their problems,’’ Mr. Jalaipour said. “But, you cannot rely on what they say because their opinion changes quickly, and if the war continues, they might say something else.”

Nevertheless, the Hezbollah crisis occurred at a time of already heightened anxiety. Many Iranians were already nervous about the potential for sanctions as a result of their government’s nuclear program. Iranians have rallied behind the line strongly promoted by their government, that nuclear power is their inalienable right. And while they may have been willing to tolerate further public isolation over something they see as their right, there is far less unity about standing up for Lebanon, many people said Saturday. Despite the country’s authoritarian leadership, Iranians are often outspoken about their political beliefs, and many were willing to be quoted by name.

“Let them fight with each other until they get tired,” said Reza Muhammadi, 33, who runs a small grocery in the center of town. Arab countries are not supporting Hezbollah, but my country is? They are giving my share to the Arabs.”

Mr. Muhammad said he worked six days a week from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. to feed his family. So, he said, he had no tolerance for his government’s financial commitments abroad. One percent of our budget has been approved by my Parliament to give to Palestine,” he said. “Why should I not get angry about this?”

In a recent edition of the daily newspaper Aftab-e Yazd, one reader wrote in saying: “Radio and television broadcast so many programs about Arab countries that I sometimes wonder if it is the Iranian TV or an Arab TV. Such vast and big propaganda has caused a kind of indifference and even negative sense toward Arab nations.”

Of course, such sentiments are not universal. There are people like Zahra Etefaghian, 51, who runs a small coffee shop near the art museum, who said: “We should really support them, and we should bear the consequences. At emergency times like this, we have to help Muslim people.”

But talk of direct Iranian actions in Lebanon is being officially discouraged — and denied. On Tuesday, a group calling itself the Headquarters for the Glory of Martyrs of the International Movement announced that it had an army of 55,000 would-be suicide bombers among its members and had already dispatched 27 to fight with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

A few days later Muhammad Hejazi, commander of the vigilante force known as the Basiji, said that reports about would-be suicide bombers going to Lebanon “have nothing to do with official organizations in the country.”

Everybody here, it seems, is going to great lengths to insist that Iran had no role in setting off this crisis, saying that Hezbollah was too far away, and too independent, to be controlled from Tehran.

“The Hezbollah forces have done a great job and have resisted well,” said Ali Akbar Hasehmi Rafsanjani, the former president and chairman of the Expediency Council, in recent public remarks. But, he added, “it is misleading to say that Iran and Syria are carrying this out.”

Even a figure like Ali Akbar Mohtashamipour, who had been one of the founders of Hezbollah in Lebanon, commented cautiously about Iran’s role in the current conflict. “Iran cannot play an instrumental role because of the long distance,” he told the daily Etemad Melli recently. “Besides, Arab countries consider the issue of Palestine and Lebanon as an Arab issue,” he added, suggesting that Iran, as a non-Arab nation, should keep its distance.

Whether or not Iran played a role in actually inciting the crisis seemed irrelevant to people interviewed Saturday.

Ali Muhammadi runs a small DVD shop, a closet-size booth where he sells pirated DVD’s for about $1 each. “I don’t think it’s an important issue for us,” he said of the conflict in Lebanon. “I think the government should take care of its people first.”

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting for this article.