Sunday, July 02, 2006

Iran Uses Shiite Bonds to Position Itself in Lebanon

Christopher Allbritton, San Francisco Chronicle:
On the streets of Harat Hreik, a mainly Shiite suburb of Beirut, the signs of Iranian influence are everywhere. Posters of the late Ayatollah Khomeini adorn storefronts and lampposts. A huge Iranian flag with the names of Iranian soccer players stretches across a major intersection.

These outward symbols are just the most obvious sign of Iran's presence and influence among Lebanese Shiites, the country's largest sect. Heading south from this neighborhood and continuing to the Lebanese-Israeli border, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iran's proxy militia and the country's largest armed group, is the authority, outgunning even the Lebanese army. Hezbollah run -- and Iran funded -- charities, hospitals, construction companies and schools provide services that the rural poor of the south and the Bekaa Valley depend on.

"It's very good, this assistance Iran gives Lebanon," said Hassan Berrou, 35, the owner of a mobile phone shop in Harat Hreik. "It is supporting the resistance (to Israel) and helping southerners in their battles through its institutions or other groups."

Iran's activities in Lebanon are part of its larger plans for the region. By working through and with local Shiite communities, which are found in Bahrain, Iraq, eastern Saudi Arabia and stretching through Syria to Lebanon and Israel's northern frontier, Tehran is well on its way to creating a "Shiite Crescent" -- a regional axis that allows it to hold most of the cards in any confrontation with the United States or Israel. And nowhere else, with the possible exception of Iraq, is Iran so well positioned as in Lebanon. READ MORE

"This has been an almost unmitigated success" for Iran, said a Western diplomatic source, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. When Iranian Revolutionary Guard units helped organize Hezbollah in 1982 in response to the Israeli invasion, the source said, Lebanon became the only place in the region where the Islamic Republic was able to successfully export its revolution. That was 24 years ago, and today the ties are tighter than ever.

Most days during the summer, busloads of Iranian tourists, eating ice cream and munching on Kentucky Fried Chicken, can be seen along the corniche in west Beirut, reflecting the cultural and historical ties Iran has to Shiites across the region.

But in addition to cultural ties, Shiites in Lebanon and across the region have fashioned a political identity from the idea of themselves as the underdog, of standing up for justice and ending oppression. It's a part of being Shiite, said Amal Sa'ad-Ghoreyab, an assistant professor at Lebanese American University who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Hezbollah. And not only is it a sense of identity, the Shiites, being a minority in the Muslim world, are sticking together against the growth in al Qaeda and Sunni fundamentalism, she said. They look to Iran as a protective force. "So it's no surprise that they look to Iran politically, too."

And not just politically. Iran has been arming and funding Hezbollah since its inception, and recently, an Israeli general claimed that troops from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps were operating on Lebanon's border with the Jewish state, helping train Hezbollah fighters.

Officials at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut declined to comment. Nawaf Moussawi, head of Hezbollah's international relations department, acknowledged Iran's political and military help, but declined to comment on reports of Iranian troops in Lebanon.

"When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982 and perpetrated massacres ... just like any resistance we needed support," he said. "We have always been keen to make friends."

So keen that Hezbollah's official spokesman, Hussein Nabulski, said that Iranian Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is his religious leader. "Hezbollah is a religious party that belongs to that leader," he said. "The word 'interests' does not begin to describe the ties between Hezbollah and Iran."

Hezbollah is "trying to fill the void, to create sympathy for themselves at the grassroots for their agenda by helping people who have been completely neglected by governments the United States has supported," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council and author of "Treacherous Triangle: The Secret Dealings of Iran, Israel and the United States." "The United States is calling for democracy whereas most of the people are calling for bread to be put on the table."

Iranian-backed parties such as Hezbollah and, more recently Hamas, are winning the hearts and minds of poor Muslims in this way. "It's a game that the United States is almost not playing," Parsi said. "They're not competing with these groups in this arena."

Western officials are alarmed. With Hezbollah refusing to disarm despite United Nations Security Council resolutions, defense pacts between the Iranians and the Syrians and -- according to the Americans -- a budding nuclear program, the machinations of Tehran are viewed among in the Western diplomatic circles here as geared toward building an offensive capability.

Last month, Iran and Syria signed a joint defense pact in Tehran, which could allow for the basing of Iranian troops in Syria. As for Lebanon, "There is no doubt the Iranian intelligence is here," the source said. "We believe the Revolutionary Guard is here, but we don't know the location."

But despite the Westerners' fears that Iran is building a network of proxies around the region to launch offensive strikes, other analysts disagree. "I would say that they are primarily using that (network) defensively because ... the Iranians are trying to fight the American and Israeli effort to completely isolate the country," said Parsi. "Iran needs to have soft power in the Arab streets for its own security because if the Arab regimes were to become hostile to Iran, perhaps because of pressure from the United States, Iran can use the Arab streets against the Arab regimes."

But some Shiites in Harat Hreik have little patience for the idea that Lebanese Shiites should pay in blood for Iran's nuclear ambitions.

"We like Iran because it helped liberate the south," said one woman who asked that her name not be used for fear of retaliation. "We don't like it interfering in Lebanon now." In case of a war, she said, she would support -- very quietly -- the United States.

"The biggest mistake the West has done in regards to Iran," Parsi said, "is to underestimate Iran's Machiavellian capabilities."

Christopher Allbritton is a freelance journalist based in Beirut. Contact us at