Omid Memarian*

BERKELEY, California, Jul 31 2006 (IPS) — Despite Iran’s strong rhetoric condemning Israel’s military onslaught against Lebanon, Tehran, which is accused by the U.S. of supplying weapons to Hezbollah, has become cautious in supporting its most flourishing investment abroad.

On a state visit to Tajikistan early last week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rejected the U.S. and Israeli charges and insisted that Iran does not support Hezbollah militarily.

But just a few months ago, a prominent Shiite cleric close to Hezbollah wrote in Baztab, a conservative Iranian news site with ties to the Revolutionary Guards, that in the event of any military action against Iran, resistance groups such as Hezbollah would make life miserable for the United States and its ally Israel.

“We will turn the Middle East into another Vietnam for the U.S.,” he wrote. “We will make the Middle East a Bermuda Triangle for Israel – Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Badr army in Iraq.”

Still, many independent Iranian experts believe that the government is trying to distance itself from the latest crisis.

“I do not think Iran wants to physically intervene in the conflict. They have already interfered by giving their full moral support,” Said Mahmoudi, head of the Department of International Law at Stockholm University, told IPS.

“They have also masterfully used the difficult situation of conservative, passive Arab leaders by criticising such leaders and thereby winning the hearts of the Arab people on the streets,” he added.

Some observers note that Tehran has often preferred a mediator role, for example, using its influence to release hostages in Lebanon during the 1980s.

“There is a slight possibility that Iran can turn this around in its favour by being included in the consultations in Rome and elsewhere and by playing a mediating role between the West and Hezbollah,” said Trita Parsi, author of “Treacherous Triangle – The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States.”

“But it’s a double-edged sword,” he told IPS. “If Tehran shows that it can rein in Hezbollah, it may score a point with European nations who will view Iran as a moderating force. But Washington, however, is likely to view Iran’s influence over Hezbollah as evidence for Iran’s proximity to terrorist organisations.”

Parsi also said that it was unlikely that Iran was actively involved in provoking the conflict. “The current fighting is to Iran’s detriment since Israel, through the attacks on Hezbollah, is destroying much of Iran’s retaliatory and deterrence capabilities. Without Hezbollah, Iran is more exposed to a U.S. or Israeli attack,” Parsi said.

“Furthermore, rather than helping Iran’s nuclear case or taking attention away from it, the current fighting is complicating matters for Iran in several ways. A critical component of Iran’s strategy in dealing with the United States and Israel has been its caution about keeping open the option of de-escalating the conflict if and when necessary.”

Parsi believes that Tehran has consistently challenged U.S. red lines on its nuclear programme, but has done so while maintaining the ability to make concessions when it had to in order to avoid a military confrontation with the West that it knew it could not win. Through the crisis in Lebanon, however, Iran has lost this ability.

While many Iranians inside and outside of the country are anxious about the possibility of an Israeli military attack, Mahmoudi believes such a development would be unlikely. “I doubt if expansion of the present war is a realistic and meditated scenario,” he said. “Although Israel can potentially find an excuse (like the one against Hezbollah) to start an attack against Syria or Iran, it seems to me that it has not been the intention.”

However, concerns remain. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has characterised the invasion of Lebanon as a part of the broader U.S.-led “war on terrorism” launched after the Sep. 11, 2001 al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, and which has included the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Al Qaeda was and is undoubtedly a terrorist organisation according to any definition. Hezbollah, like Hamas, is stamped as a terrorist organisation, in my view for political reasons. Hezbollah is in essence a resistance movement which came to existence in 1982 and as a result of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon,” said Mahmoudi.

He noted that there are still certain areas in southern Lebanon under Israeli control, as well as disputed areas between Lebanon and Syria. “So Hezbollah’s act of attacking Israeli’s military posts at the border and kidnapping of Israeli soldiers at most should be considered as grave crimes, punishable by normal law enforcement measures,” he added. “Such kidnapping should definitely not be seen as purely ‘terrorist’ acts like those of al Qaeda.”

Roozbeh Mirebrahimi, a political columnist with the Etemad-Melli daily in Tehran, told IPS in a telephone interview that, “At this moment, Iran and Syria just want not to lose Hezbollah completely and to support them in the coming months and years.”

“Destroying the capabilities of Hezbollah is designed to neutralise the Iranian influence in the region. Now, many Lebanese believe that their painful life after the attack is because of the relationship between Iran and Hezbollah,” he added.

“Just 30 percent of Lebanon’s population is Shiite and unlike the Iranian government’s propaganda, they are not very popular. In the Lebanese mind, Hezbollah is not a symbol of the resistance against Israel anymore but a symbol of ignorance and fatuity.”

Iran is also coming under increasing pressure over its nuclear programme. On Monday, the U.N. Security Council demanded that Tehran suspend its enrichment activities by the end of August or face possible sanctions. The United States is leading the pressure on Iran.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman countered with the warning that if the Security Council passes any resolution intended to punish Tehran, Iran will revoke its consideration of the U.S.-brokered incentive package presented on Jun. 6.

The threat of sanctions, the escalation of the crisis in the Middle East, and the U.S. accusations that Iran is behind the actions of Hezbollah in the context of the larger “war on terror” seem to be setting the stage for military action against Iran.

“So it may therefore be expected that military actions against Iranian nuclear installations will be seriously considered by the U.S. and Israel. Iran has taken this scenario very seriously and has repeatedly mentioned that it will hit back,” said Mahmoudi. “Irrespective of who hits Iran, Israel will be the first and the main target.”

In his latest visit to Iran last month, Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Nasrollah, emphasised that should Iran be attacked, Hezbollah will immediately react.

“It seems fully understandable that Israel, as a pre-emptive measure and in preparation for a possible military action against Iran’s nuclear installations, has launched this enormous operation against Hezbollah to cut or paralyse Iran’s military arm in Lebanon,” said Mahmoudi.

“Seen in this perspective, Iran should be very frustrated and anxious about the risks of military measures following U.N. sanctions. For such measures, the U.S. and Israel of course do not wait for any U.N. authorisation and as usual can find an excuse,” he said.

*Omid Memarian is an Iranian journalist and civil society activist. He has won several awards, including Human Rights Watch’s highest honour in 2005, the Human Rights Defender Award. Omid is currently a visiting scholar at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.


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