Friday, November 28, 2008

Iran Early Bird-Friday

The second Islamic republic – closer than ever before?

Lebanon President Michel Suleiman was in Tehran this week, with senior Iranian spokesmen and leading political pundits defining visit as "historic and strategic for Lebanon, Iran and the region." From the point of view of Iran, which has extensive input invested in Lebanon – arms, funds, civilian infrastructure, religious figures – this is truly the case.Lebanon features prominently in Iran's public relations and political activities, and Tehran stages numerous Lebanon-related events, focusing on Hezbollah as a symbol of resistance and steadfastness against Israel. From the Iranian perspective, the Second Lebanon War was payback for the long years spent investing in "its first frontline with Israel and the West." For Tehran, Suleiman's visit constituted a worthy opportunity to re-air its views and messages in this context.

Mission not-impossible

Iran is still striving to establish "the second Islamic republic" in Lebanon, and to found there an Islamic society in the spirit of the Iranian revolutionary model, believing that in the medium-to-long term, Lebanon's demographics – a Shia majority – could serve as a convenient platform for a democratic political takeover. Iran and Hezbollah, therefore, are working to guide the Shia community in Lebanon in this direction.

Hezbollah's loyalties, and those of Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in particular, lie first and foremost with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Iranian leader's directives have binding religious validity, and Nasrallah serves in fact more as Khamenei's religious-authority representative in Lebanon than as Hezbollah secretary-general. Nasrallah and his predecessors, and Hezbollah in general, have been destined by Iran to play a central role in establishing Tehran's frontline base in the Middle East and turning Lebanon and Hezbollah not only into an Iranian outpost and counterbalance to Israel, but also into an example for the other Muslims (not only the Shia) that one can successfully face up to Israel.

If after the occupation of Iraq and the regional ramifications it sparked it appeared as if this was a mission impossible, now, some two months before U.S. President George Bush, who had viewed Lebanon as one of the most promising grounds for establishing a democracy in the Middle East, but failed to go all the way to realize his vision, comes to the end of his term in office, Tehran believes it is indeed possible. This Iranian belief stems, inter alia, from Hezbollah's recent success in the Second Lebanon War and subsequently in the political arena in Lebanon too, as well as Iran's progress in its nuclear program – both of which fall in line with the Iranian leadership's "divine intervention and providence" approach. This was the mood during the talks between Ahmadi-Nejad and Suleiman, with the former commenting that the regional situation tilted clearly in favor of the independent countries – Iran, Syria and Lebanon – and that "the Zionist regime is left to wallow in its frustrations." According to Ahmadi-Nejad, "We hope that this frustration leads to its paralysis… And the supporters of this regime [the United States and the West] must also know that their support will no longer be of use to it."

Hezbollah as a model

During Khamenei's meeting with Suleiman, the Iranian supreme leader stressed that "the Lebanese people's historic triumph over Israel in the Lebanon War is a sign of Lebanon's maturity," adding that for 60 years, no Arab or Islamic country had successfully stood up to Israel and that now, the Lebanese people had shattered this myth and had defeated Israel, thus becoming a role model. Khamenei called on Muslims worldwide to follow the example set by Hezbollah and the people of Lebanon, stressed Iran's ongoing support for Hezbollah, and ordered a continuation of the resistance, in practical terms too, so as to face up to "the danger of the Zionist regime."

For his part, Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani was somewhat more cautious, commenting that in light of the historic ties between the two countries, Lebanon would always enjoy moral support and occupy a central place in Iranian public opinion and foreign policy.

In an effort to illustrate their intentions, the Iranian hosts took Suleiman to see the Defense Ministry permanent exhibition, where the Lebanese president voiced his country's desire to tighten "security cooperation with Iran in order to deal with threats from home and abroad." In response, Iran Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar commented that Tehran was willing to expand cooperation in the field "in order to boost the Lebanon Army's combat capabilities" and that "in the Second Lebanon War, the people of Lebanon demonstrated their courage and constituted a shining example of the Islamic nation's resistance against the Zionist regime."

Earlier this month, former Lebanon president Emile Lahoud also visited Iran; and in October, the leader of the pro-Hezbollah Free Patriotic Movement Party, Michel Aoun, was in Tehran too.

To illustrate Iran's support for Lebanon, and in the framework of Tehran's policy to exploit to the fullest the results of the Second Lebanon War, Ahmadi-Nejad met in mid-October with family members of Lebanese prisoners captured during the war. The Iranian president praised Lebanon's "firm stand" during the course of the war, commenting that it had shocked Israel. "God promised those who stand together and oppose the patronizing superpowers that they will overcome them – and so it was." Ahmadi-Nejad said. October also saw the distribution in Iran of registration forms for "Membership in Hezbollah Lebanon," with youths being asked to join the global front in the struggle against imperialism.

Iran also wishes to take advantage of the results of the Second Lebanon War and the achievements of Hezbollah to spread its ideological doctrine. On August 8, Khamenei met with senior Iranian Foreign Ministry officials and ambassadors, urging them to work towards promoting Islamic ideology and the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine, as they constitute "examples of the magnificence of the Iranian nation and a demonstration of its power." A few days later, on August 12, the Iranian regime held a ceremony in Palestine Square in Tehran to mark the second anniversary of "the victory of the resistance." The ceremony ended with the release into the air of 33 balloons – one for each day of the resistance.

In an analysis that appeared in the Kargozaran daily on the backdrop of Suleiman's visit, Mohammed Ali Abtahi, who served in the past as deputy to former Iran president Khatami, offered his take on Iran's policies and actions in the Lebanese arena, the Lebanese domestic situation and foreign intervention in the country, praising the role of the Iranian Foreign Ministry in this context. Abtahi determined, among other things, that the roots of the problems in Lebanon are its border with Israel and the involvement on an ethnic basis of various foreign states in Lebanon's domestic political affairs – Iran and Syria's support for Shia Hezbollah; Saudi Arabia's support for the Sunni; France for the Christians; and the United States, which is trying to promote its interests in Lebanon. According to Abtahi, Suleiman's visit was important for the purpose of cementing the official ties between Iran and Lebanon, because "despite the fact that Suleiman is a Christian, he represents all the factions." In the same context, Abtahi noted that Lebanon had emerged fortified from the Hezbollah takeover. If Saad Hariri, Walid Jonbalat and Fuad Siniora were to come to Iran too, Abtahi added, it would do wonders for internal stability and unity in Lebanon and help to undermine the plots, "which are spreading like a plague throughout the region," to stir conflict and create a rift between the Sunni and Shia. Abtahi said that as the only Shia country, Iran must take the lead in thwarting such plots, and that its policies vis-à-vis Lebanon have a vital role to play in this context.


Bush's message of democracy as an answer to terror reached Lebanon and "posed a threat" to the Iranian Islamic model that Tehran has in mind for it; and thus Lebanon became the stage for a collision between two dominant perspectives that are likely to have more influence than any other over the future of Lebanon in particular and the Middle east in general: Democratization, which represents the West (the U.S. and French support for Siniora's government) versus the Iranian Shia revolutionary brand of Islam (Hezbollah and the opposition to the Lebanese government).

And this is the perspective from which one must look at the huge significance Iran places on Lebanon in general and Hezbollah's resistance to Israel in the Second Lebanon War and its results in particular. If, for Tehran, the Israel Defense Force's withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 signaled the Islamic revolution's first victory outside Iran, then the Second Lebanon War has long since become a divine-mythical event in Iran. In a letter Khamenei sent to Nasrallah after the war, the Iranian leader wrote: "Your holy war… extends way beyond my ability to describe it in words… It is a divine victory… It is a triumph for Islam." And on another occasion, also in the context of the Second Lebanon War, Khamenei commented on the Iranian angle in the victory, noting in August 2006 that "Iran has always stood firm with regard to Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan… The reason for this is the cooperation among the United States, Israel and a number of the impure countries in Europe, such as Britain, which wish to eradicate Islam in the Middle East because it stands up to them… The Islamic wind that blows from Iran has renewed the Islamic identity."

For Iran, Hezbollah serves not only as a living and successful model from the point of view of "the victory of the blood over the sword," but also as a reflection of the Islamic revolution. Hezbollah feeds off its strength and draws from its successes. Both sides acknowledge the fact that the fall of the one would mean the end of the other too.

For now, despite the heavy cost of the war and perhaps even thanks to it, Iran and Hezbollah feel that they have managed to get Lebanon onto the desired path on which at some point in the future, the Shia majority will hand over control of the country to them. The efforts of the West to undermine this trend are at their peak, but are failing to register much success. Syria, too, a central partner to Iran and Hezbollah, is returning gradually to the Lebanese arena after being forced to withdraw from there to the folds of the international system in the wake of sanctions.

For Iran and Hezbollah, "the second [Shia] Islamic republic" appears closer than ever before.

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