Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Tehran by the Sea

Fouad Ajami, U.S.News & World Report:
In the life of Lebanon, the political primacy of a relatively young Shiite cleric by the name of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, is nothing short of revolutionary. READ MORE

In a society with a clear sense of social class and pedigree, Nasrallah was born to those at the outer margins. He grew up in a slum of Beirut, amid tin shacks and squalor. In a Levantine society at ease with western manners and languages, he was the quintessential outsider. Born in 1960, he would have come into his own when Lebanon descended into full-scale civil war. He was in his early 20s when Iran's revolutionaries came into Lebanon in search of "sister republics" of the embattled theocracy of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Their revolution was on the ropes, caught up in a drawn-out war with the regime of Saddam Hussein and with the full weight of the Sunni-based Arab order of power in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian peninsula.

Iran had been unable to overthrow the regime of Hussein, nor could it subvert the Sunni states of the gulf; Lebanon was an easier target, and marginal men like Nasrallah would ride the wave of Iran's revolution. Khomeini was the perfect avenger, his cause rolling together the promise of earthly rewards for men like Nasrallah and the claim of living the life of the faith. Newly urbanized young men hurled into greater Beirut from the poverty of the southern hinterland, and from the Bekaa Valley, would be given both guns and a sense of embattled religious devotion, both material sustenance and the call of martyrdom.

New breed. No one in Lebanon, no one in neighboring Arab lands, had given those young foot soldiers in this holy war anything to look forward to. The Iranian missionaries-religious preachers and sly intelligence operatives-would give them a big calling, enable them to conquer their self-contempt. Nasrallah epitomizes this breed. He wore a turban, it is true, and his biography has him spending time in the seminaries of the Shiite holy city of Najaf in Iraq. But his time there was brief; not for him were studies of the text and Scripture. He rose through the underground, and through Iranian patronage. He and his lieutenants in Hezbollah would have treasure to dispense and young boys ready to fight and die for them. It had taken time and patience for the Iranians to put together this "sister republic" in Lebanon. But the Iranians are supremely patient, befitting a nation of chess players and carpet weavers, as shrewd observers say of them.

On the face of it, Iran's ability to make itself a factor in the life of Lebanon is odd in the extreme. Iran is far from Lebanon, separated from its Lebanese devotees by language and distance and temperament. Lebanon is a country of the eastern Mediterranean, its people seafarers and traders, the European countries of the Mediterranean within close distance. But belief and oil wealth gave Iranians a great measure of power in Lebanon's affairs. They would use that power just when they needed it. In the 1980s, it was in Lebanon where the grim Iranian practice of picking up western hostages for trade with their home governments became a fine, cruel art. Iran had deniability, but no one was fooled, and France and the United States were forced into all sorts of concessions to the Iranian regime to secure the release of citizens of theirs picked up in Beirut's streets. It had been that humiliating barter of hostages for weapons and spare parts, it should be recalled, that nearly devastated the Reagan administration in 1986. Two decades later, in this crisis playing out on the Israel-Lebanon border, the Iranians called in their chits. Nasrallah had to give his Iranian patrons a full-fledged crisis that would demonstrate Iran's reach in the region and provide a measure of diversion from the debate surrounding Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Before the Shiites of Lebanon now lies a historic choice. The first is Lebanonism, devotion to their own country, a commitment to its pluralism and to its subtle truths. In this version of history, the Shiites would bid for power in a nation with multiple faiths and communities. The other choice leads to the Iranian theocracy, and the rising Shiite leaders would be Iran's men. "Lebanon is Iran, Iran is Lebanon," say Hezbollah's operatives.

The sad truth of Lebanon is that Iran's rivals-the United States, Europe, the Arab powers-are outplayed, and outspent, by the Iranians. The fragile peace on the Israel-Lebanon frontier will hold, or will be shattered, at the behest of the masters in Tehran.