Dealing with Iran and its proxies/ Lebanon’s latest crisis

May 9, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

May 9, 2008
Number 05/08 #05

Today’s Update features some new pieces on strategies for dealing with the challenge posed by Iran and its proxies and allies, as well as analysis of the latest example of destablising behaviour by one such ally, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.

First up, well known Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami discusses how to handle Iranian misbehaviour, especially in Iraq, but also involving Hezbollah, Hamas etc. He says the revolutionary regime in Teheran has almost never had to pay any significant price for transgressions, and compares this with past revolutionary regimes, implying that the key to modifying Iranian behaviour is decisively demonstrating that misbehaviour comes with a price that matters.  For this expert’s take on the key element for modifying Iranian behaviour, CLICK HERE. Ajami also had an interesting article on the Arab reaction to Israel’s existence on the occasion of Israel’s 60th anniversary. 

Next, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl looks at the rocket attacks in Iraq and from Gaza, and sees an Iranian-inspired pattern, based on the the Hezbollah model, of deliberately trying to place Israel and the US in no-win situations and wear them out. He says this Iranian strategy will be a major challenge for the US in the Middle East in the years to come. He also casts doubt on the faith many seem to have that direct US-Iran talks will lead to a deal to end such attacks, and stop the Iranian nuclear drive, asking, “In exchange for what?” from an Iranian point of view. For this important analysis of the dominant trend in the Middle East, CLICK HERE.

Finally, Michael Young, the opinion editor at the Beirut Daily Star, explains what is really going on in Lebanon as Hezbollah blockades the airport and street battles have erupted between Hezbollah supporters and opponents. He says that the pretence of Hezbollah leading an opposition coalition against the government is looking almost completely hollow today. He also argues that Hezbollah sees its very existence as threatened if it does not soon come to dominate Lebanon, given the pressure it is otherwise likely to come under to disarm. He concludes by speculating on the possibility of a future divorce between Lebanese Shi’ites and the rest of the country. To read it all, CLICK HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:


Iran Must Finally Pay a Price


Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2008

We tell the Iranians that the military option is “on the table.” But three decades of playing cat-and-mouse with American power have emboldened Iran’s rulers. We have played by their rules, and always came up second best.

Next door, in Iraq, Iranians played arsonists and firemen at the same time. They could fly under the radar, secure in the belief that the U.S., so deeply engaged there and in Afghanistan, would be reluctant to embark on another military engagement in the lands of Islam.
David Gothard

This is all part of a larger pattern. As Tehran has wreaked havoc on regional order and peace over the last three decades, the world has indulged it. To be sure, Saddam Hussein launched a brutal war in 1980 against his nemesis, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That cruel conflict, which sought to quarantine the revolution, ended in a terrible stalemate; and it never posed an existential threat to the clerical state that Khomeini had built. Quite to the contrary, that war enabled the new rulers to consolidate their hold.

Over the course of its three decades in power, this revolutionary regime has made its way in the world with relative ease. No “White Army” gathered to restore the lost dominion of the Pahlavis; the privileged classes and the beneficiaries of the old order made their way to Los Angeles and Paris, and infidel armies never showed up. Even in the face of great violation – the holding of American hostages for more than 400 days – the indulgence of outside powers held.

Compare the path of the Iranian revolutionaries with the obstacles faced by earlier revolutions, and their luck is easy to see. Three years into their tumult, the tribunes of the French Revolution of 1789 were at war with the powers of Europe. The wars of the French Revolution would last for well over two decades. The Bolsheviks, too, had to fight their way into the world of states. The civil war between the White and Red Armies pulled the Allies into the struggle. A war raged in Russia and in Siberia. It was only in 1921 that Britain granted the Soviet regime de facto recognition.

In its first decade, the Iranian revolution was a beneficiary of the Cold War. From the vantage point of the U.S., the Iranians had the most precious of assets – a long border with the Soviet Union. Americans were reluctant to push the new clerical regime into the Soviet orbit. The crisis that nearly shattered the Reagan presidency, the covert sale of arms to Iran authorized by Ronald Reagan himself, stemmed from this reading of Iran as the “underbelly of the Soviet Union.”

In retrospect, the U.S. exaggerated the weakness of the Iranian theocrats in the face of the communist menace within Iran, and on the Soviet border. Nearby was the great struggle for Afghanistan, the last fight of the Cold War, and this too was a boon to the Iranian clerics.

Many thought that the Iranian moderates would turn up in the fullness of time. In his inaugural speech, George H.W. Bush offered an olive branch to Iran’s rulers: “Goodwill begets goodwill,” he said. A decade later, in the typical Clintonian spirit of contrition and penance, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave Iran’s rulers an outright apology for America’s role in the coup that overthrew the nationalist leader Mohammad Mussadiq in 1953. The coup “was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development,” she said, part of a flawed American diplomacy that aided the Shah’s government as it “brutally repressed political dissent.”

But the clerics have had no interest in any bargain with the U.S. Khomeini and his successors have never trusted their society’s ability to withstand the temptations of normal traffic with America. Furthermore, oil wealth granted Iran’s rulers an exemption from the strictures of economic efficiency. They would pay the price of economic sanctions and deny their country the benefits of access to the American market, because their hold on political power trumped all other concerns.

At any rate, the market was forgiving. The European Union, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and China in later years, would supply Iran with all the technology and imports it needed. Oil revenues enabled the regime to defy the power of outsiders.

Tehran has never needed to remake itself into a warrior state. The skills of the bazaar and the ways of terror have seen it through. They could feud with the United Arab Emirates over small contested islands while turning Dubai into a veritable extension of the Iranian economy. They have been painfully good at probing the limits of tolerable conduct abroad. They have harassed Arab rulers while posing as status quo players at peace with the order of the region.

There were also proxies willing to do Tehran’s bidding: Hezbollah in Lebanon, warlords and militias in Iraq, purveyors of terror for the hire. To be sure, there is enough American power in the region – and enough Arab resources – to balance that of Iran. But the Iranian state has had a feel for stepping back from the brink when it truly mattered.

The leaders who oversee the American project in Iraq now see Iran as the principal threat to our success there. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, a diplomat with a thorough knowledge of the region, has spoken of an Iranian attempt to “Lebanonize” Iraq – to subvert the country through the use of proxies.

In Iraq, the Iranians have been able to dial up the violence and dial it down, to make promises of cooperation to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki while supplying Shiite extremists with weapons and logistical support. “Lebanonization” may be an exaggerated fear, because Iraq is much larger and wealthier than Lebanon, and more jealous of its own sovereignty. But the low-level warfare against American soldiers by Shiite groups – aided and abetted by Iran – may be responsible for hundreds of American deaths.

The hope entertained a year or so ago, that Iran would refrain from playing with fire in Iraq, has shown to be wishful thinking. Iran’s nuclear ambitions are of a wholly different magnitude. But before we tackle that Persian menace, the Iranian theocrats will have to be shown that there is a price for their transgressions.

Mr. Ajami, a Bradley Prize recipient, teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of “The Foreigner’s Gift” (Free Press, 2006).

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War of the Rockets

By Jackson Diehl

Washington Post, Monday, May 5, 2008

Last Tuesday, Israel faced the fallout from a Palestinian family of five perishing in the Gaza Strip during an Israeli strike against militants firing rockets at an Israeli town. On Wednesday, the Bush administration woke to a front-page picture in The Post of a 2-year-old Iraqi boy killed in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad aimed at Shiite militiamen launching rockets at the city’s Green Zone. The similarity of these tragic and politically costly episodes was anything but a coincidence.

For months now, Israel has been mired in an unwinnable war against Hamas and allied militias in Gaza, who fire missiles at civilians in Israel and then hide among their own women and children, ensuring that retaliatory fire will produce innocent victims for the Middle East’s innumerable satellite television networks. A growing number of the militiamen have been to Iran for training, and some of the missiles they launch are Iranian-made. Their objective is obvious: to exhaust Israelis with an endless war of attrition while making it impossible for Israel’s government to reach a political settlement with the more moderate Palestinian administration in the West Bank.

Now U.S. forces have been drawn into a similar morass in Sadr City, the Shiite neighborhood of 2 million ruled by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. As Iranian-made rockets rain down on the Green Zone and nearby neighborhoods, U.S. forces attempt, so far in vain, to stop the fire by attacking Shiite militants from the ground and the air. Hundreds of people have been killed, filling the satellite airwaves and handing a new argument to the “this war is lost” lobby in Washington.

It’s not hard to grasp the common strategy at work here or to intuit what interest it serves. The rockets fired from Gaza and from Sadr City are two prongs of an offensive aimed at forcing the United States out of Iraq, putting Israel on the defensive — and leaving Iran as the region’s preeminent power. The third front, in Lebanon, is also the model. There the Hezbollah militia has armed itself with thousands of rockets and long-range missiles in preparation for a repeat of its 2006 war with Israel, while making Tehran a power in domestic Lebanese politics. The fourth front is in Afghanistan, where Taliban militiamen near the Iranian border now come armed with Iranian-made weapons.

Countering the strategic Iranian challenge — which also includes its unimpeded nuclear program — is likely to preoccupy U.S. policy in the Middle East for years. But the more immediate problem for both the United States and Israel is how to end the wars of the rockets. As Israel has demonstrated over the past 18 months, selective strikes against rocket crews by aircraft or special forces can inflict a lot of casualties — but don’t stop the launchings. As U.S. forces have shown in Baghdad, sending substantial ground forces into Sadr City (or Gaza), building walls and fighting for control of the streets doesn’t bring quick relief, either. Israel has so far avoided a similar offensive in Gaza in part because of another problem, the lack of an exit strategy. Even if the streets can be cleared of militants, who will ensure that no rockets are fired after the invading forces depart? Neither Iraqi nor Palestinian government forces seem up to the job.

Both Israelis and Americans are tantalized by the prospect of a political solution. With U.S. encouragement, the Iraqi government is negotiating with both Sadr and Iran; Israel is talking to Hamas through Egypt. Both militias say they would be happy to observe a cease-fire in exchange for political concessions. (Sadr has already announced one, though the rocket launches continue.) But neither will agree to disarm. This is again the model of Hezbollah, which participates in the Lebanese parliament but refuses to give up its weapons, giving it the ability to wage war at any time of its — or Tehran’s — choosing. Hamas will not surrender its option to bleed Israel, nor will the Mahdi Army its means to harry the American enemy.

Some think all this can be settled by a direct approach to Tehran by the United States and a grand bargain that would stop the flow of weapons and trainers to Baghdad, Gaza, Lebanon and Afghanistan, along with the nuclear weapons program. In exchange for what? Never mind: The next president, especially if a Democrat, will probably try it. But let’s hope Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain also are thinking about a grimmer possibility: that Iran believes that its offensive is succeeding and that its goals are within reach, and that it has no intention of stopping. As long as neither Israeli nor U.S. commanders can find a way to win the war of the rockets, that’s likely to be the case.

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Heading toward a Lebanese divorce

By Michael Young

Daily Star  (Beirut), May 08, 2008

Once we accept that this week’s alleged labor unrest was only the latest phase in Hizbullah’s war against the Lebanese state, will we understand what actually took place yesterday. And once we realize that cutting the airport road was a calculated effort by Hizbullah to reverse the Siniora government’s transfer of the airport security chief, Wafiq Shouqair, will we understand what may take place in the coming days.

Since last January, when Hizbullah and Amal used the pretense of social dissatisfaction to obstruct roads in and around Beirut, the opposition has, quite openly, shown itself to be limited to Hizbullah. Michel Aoun, once a useful fig leaf to lend cross-communal diversity to the opposition, has since become an afterthought with hardly any pull in Christian streets.

Long ago we learned that Hizbullah could not, in any real sense, allow the emergence of a Lebanese state free from Syrian control. Soon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the party tried to suffocate the 2005 “independence intifada” in the egg, realizing that Hizbullah had no future as an autonomous armed group in a state that would seek to reimpose its writ after decades of subservience to Damascus. That effort failed on March 14, 2005 – mostly useful as an event in showing that a majority of people would not be intimidated by Hizbullah’s rally of March 8.

Hizbullah’s anxieties were understandable. As the party saw things, without a Lebanese state embracing the idea of open-ended conflict against Israel, and Hizbullah’s sovereign, vanguard role in that conflict (and what state truly independent of Syria would ever want to choose so reckless a path?), Hizbullah would not be able to justify retaining its weapons. But without its weapons, Hizbullah could not exist. Post-Syria Lebanon has posed existential problems for the party, problems that began when Israel withdrew from most of South Lebanon in 2000. The irony of this situation – that Hizbullah was always most comfortable when both Syria and Israel were present in Lebanon – the latter to fight against, the former to safeguard that fight – says a lot about the party’s future options.

Aoun will doubtless find an excuse to explain why the calls for a strike were ignored in predominantly Christian areas. But Hizbullah has to be careful. Now the party’s every move is one of the Shiites against the rest. The sharp decline in Aoun’s popularity, not to mention the pressure being felt by other Hizbullah allies like Elie Skaff in Zahleh, all emanate from a single source: Most Christians, not to mention vast majorities of Sunnis and Druze, see no possible coexistence between the idea of the Lebanese state and a Hizbullah that insists on demanding veto power over any decision that might limit its political and military margin of maneuver.

The ludicrousness of Aoun’s latest statements on Monday only underlined this reality. You have to wonder what the general’s electorate felt when he defended Hizbullah’s activities in Kisirwan and Jbeil, which he represents in Parliament. There will always be those who follow Aoun into a brick wall, who will even follow him to Damascus to bestow his blessings on the Assad regime, a trip he should be encouraged to make if only to be kicked to the outer circles of political insignificance. But most Christians are smarter and can see that the general, after having seriously damaged his own Maronite community by refusing to elect a president, does not even rate much inside the opposition, whose errors Aoun continues to endorse to his detriment.

In picking a fight with Hizbullah over its cameras next to the airport, Walid Jumblatt did something different than what the public imagined. The reality is that Hizbullah doesn’t need cameras to know what is going on at the facility. Through its authority over the General Security directorate, the airport’s security unit, and sympathetic employees, Hizbullah has all the information it needs on air traffic. Rather, what Jumblatt did was provoke a confrontation and, to dig up the old Soviet jargon, heighten the contradictions between Lebanese society and Hizbullah. Now the party’s true intentions are out there for everyone to see. Hizbullah can no longer hide behind its “resistance,” a fictitious “national opposition” or imaginary social protests. It is confirming on a daily basis that its minimal goal is to keep alive a Hizbullah state within the state and to force most Lebanese to accept this, even as the party infiltrates the government bureaucracy and has free rein in the airport and ports.

Yet the message on Wednesday was plain. Outside areas under direct Hizbullah control, no one respected the call for a strike. The labor unions were not even able to march through mainly Sunni neighborhoods, for fear of street fights. The only real weapon Hizbullah has is to hold the airport hostage by closing all access roads. But all sides can close roads. How such action can possibly be in the interest of the Shiite community is beyond comprehension. Isolating the airport amounts to thuggery, underlining that Hizbullah now has few means other than to collectively punish all Lebanese to advance its exclusivist agenda. As the commentator Uqab Sakr put it: “Shutting down the airport is what the Israelis did in 2006; it’s not what Hizbullah should be doing today.”

The Lebanese state cannot live side by side with a Hizbullah state. This theorem is becoming more evident by the day, as the party’s actions in the past three years have been, by definition, directed against the state, the government, the army and the security forces, institutions of national representation, the economy, and more fundamentally the rules of the Lebanese communal game. We’ve reached the point where Hizbullah, and more importantly the Shiite community, must choose. Will it persist in favoring a Hizbullah-led parallel state that will surely continue to clash with the recognized state? Or will Shiites try to find a new arrangement with their countrymen that forces Hizbullah to surrender its weapons?

The turmoil will continue, and at this point has already taken on a regional coloring. Hizbullah will not easily swallow Shouqair’s transfer, and the closing of the airport road is its leverage to coerce the government into going back on the decision. But all this will only raise the prospect of escalating violence while focusing hostility against Hizbullah, benefiting no one. If the party wants its semi-independent entity, it is now obliged to state this plainly. The masks have fallen. And if Hizbullah does decide to reject Lebanon, then we shouldn’t be surprised if some start speaking of an amicable divorce between Shiites and the rest of Lebanon.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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