May 15, 2009
Number 05/09 #05
Today’s Update looks at the upcoming elections in Lebanon, scheduled for June 7, and Iran, scheduled for June 12.
Our first piece comes from journalist Michael Totten, a frequent visitor to Lebanon, who says that his sources are telling him that a victory by Hezbollah and its allies looks like a distinct possibility. He says that this may have relatively little effect within Lebanon, where Hezbollah already has a veto power over all policy, but the international implications could be extensive. Lebanon will inevitably cease to be a Western ally and become part of the Iran-Syria axis – but it will also create considerable challenges for Hezbollah, whose continued armed status is unpopular in Lebanon and may become more so as they assume responsibilities of government. For his full discussion, CLICK HERE. Another excellent general analysis of the election and its implications comes from Israeli academic expert Amir Kulick.
Another longer feature on Lebanon’s electoral race comes from David Samuels of the New Republic. He speaks to representatives of all key Lebanese factions, and provides a vibrant picture of the political forces at play. Particularly interesting is his encounter with Hezbollah leaders and description towards the end of his article of a Hezbollah rally. For the complete feature, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Hezbollah confirms it is aiding Hamas in Gaza with “every type of support.”
Finally, the Economist comments on uncertain signs that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be vulnerable in the Iranian poll. The magazine points out that, despite Iranian media attempts to build up his supposed great achievements, his opponents are attacking his foreign policy as needlessly reckless, and even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei seems to be putting some distance between himself and the President. However, the magazine points out that Ahmadinejad still has strong cards, including a loyal base more likely to vote than that of his opponents. For all of this piece, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, more reporting on the political process going on in Iran, as the ruling clerics decide who is allowed to run for President next week. Meanwhile, Iran expert Meir Javedanfar on the messianic beliefs and connections of current President Ahmadinejad.
Readers may also be interested in:
- The US has joined the UN Human Rights Council. Commenting on the problems with this body are famous Czech playwright, dissident and political leader Vaclav Havel and former UN employee Ronen Farrow. Meanwhile, leading Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim has some pithy comments on the UN’s Durban II conference.
- A Fatah representative, the PLO Ambassador to Lebanon Abbas Zaki says he prefers a genuine two-state resolution to a “hudna” or ceasefire with Israel – because a proper deal will see Israel destroyed more quickly.
- A good comment on the Pope’s trip to Israel from Professor Yehuda Bauer, the doyen of Holocaust scholars. Other interesting comments on the Pope’s trip here, here, and here.
- Some interesting analysis of the real sources of the plight of Palestinian Christians.
- A good news story about a West Bank TV station providing genuine local news to Palestinians, instead of incitement and glorification of leaders.
Michael J. Totten
Commentary “Contentions” 05.14.2009 – 12:09 PM
Brace yourself for a possible Hezbollah victory in Lebanon. On June 7, 2009, Lebanese voters will go to the polls, and even some in Beirut’s current “March 14″ government think the Hezbollah-led “March 8″ coalition might squeak out a win.
Lebanon, though, isn’t Gaza. A “March 8″ upset at the ballot box, if it happens, won’t come about the same way Hamas won the last Palestinian elections. Palestinians had only two viable parties to choose from, Fatah and Hamas. One Palestinian I know said Fatah’s corrupt men were so hated that even then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert might have won if he stood for election against them.
Politics are much more complicated in Lebanon. The country is so ideologically fractious it makes Iraq look cohesive. Lebanon has almost as many political parties as people, yet most end up in one absurdly diverse coalition or the other. Not everyone in the anti-Syrian “March 14″ camp is a liberal democrat, and not everyone on the “March 8″ side is a jihadist.
“March 14″ includes both right-wing Christians and the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance. They agree on Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah being menaces, but little else. Liberal Christians, libertarian Sunnis, disgruntled Shias, and most of the Druze are there, too.
Hezbollah leads the “March 8″ bloc, but is just one part of it. The Party of God is joined by the secular Shia Amal party because the two make a formidable duo in promoting Shia interests within Lebanon’s sectarian political system.
Michel Aoun’s predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement viscerally fears and loathes Saudi Arabia. And the Aounists, for now anyway, would rather forge a cynical tactical alliance with Syria, Iran, and the radical Shias than get in bed with Wahhabis and the rest of the Arab world.
The Aounists are just using Hezbollah because they think it’s expedient and convenient. “The situation in the South is finished,” one of them told me, referring to the violent conflict between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006. “If it happens again, [Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan] Nasrallah will lose his case.” “We’ll extend our hand and ask them to join us,” said another. “But we can’t wait forever. If they refuse to disarm, we’ll crack the sh*t out of them.”
Hezbollah supporters themselves are all over the place ideologically. Many thrill to jihad and the destruction of Israel as the leadership does. Others believe Hezbollah’s military strength is Lebanon’s only defense against an impending Israeli invasion. They want deterrence, not war, and simply fail to understand that a disarmed Hezbollah is their best bet for peace and quiet. They are bombarded daily with hysterical propaganda on Hezbollah’s Al Manar TV and in Hezbollah’s schools against the supposedly warmongering “Zionist Entity.” Others simply reward Hezbollah with votes out of gratitude for their network of hospitals, schools, and other humanitarian fronts.
On my last trip to Lebanon, several “March 14″ supporters made a convincing case that daily life in Lebanon wouldn’t change much if “March 8″ won in June. Hezbollah has the freedom to do whatever it wants even now, because Lebanon’s government has always been weak and a hair’s breadth away from irrelevance no matter who runs it. Hezbollah itself is only expected to win ten parliamentary seats out of a total of 128. That’s less than eight percent.
Geopolitically though, everything will change. Lebanon’s current “March 14″ government is an ally of the West and of Arab governments other than Syria’s. Prime Minister Fouad Seniora has repeatedly – and I think honestly – stated he wants a renewed armistice agreement with Israel. A “March 8″ government would reverse all those diplomatic efforts and push Lebanon back into, or at the very least toward, the Syria-Iran axis. War prospects with Israel would increase, and any eventual war would almost certainly turn out more destructive than the last one if the people of Lebanon willingly elect a coalition led by a jihadist party vowing war and destruction.
The Obama Administration is indicating through diplomatic jargon the U.S.’s response to a Hezbollah victory. Former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman had this to say to Congress: “The shape of the United States’ assistance programs in Lebanon will be evaluated in the context of Lebanon’s parliamentary election results and the policies formed by the new cabinet.” “It won’t surprise you to hear that I think moderation is important in the affairs of states,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Beirut recently. “We want to see a strong, independent, free and sovereign Lebanon.” Her statement may sound generic, but everyone in Lebanon knows exactly what it means. It’s an endorsement for “March 14.”
President Barack Obama wouldn’t be able to maintain the same warm relations with a Lebanon led by “March 8″ even if he wished to. Despite the president’s overtures toward leaders in Tehran, a party with “Death to America” as a slogan cannot be an ally. Hezbollah refused to meet with, of all people, former President Jimmy Carter a few months ago because he’s perceived as too ardent a “Zionist.” If Hezbollah’s leaders can’t handle Carter, they certainly won’t tolerate an American administration whose staff supported Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza a few months ago.
If Hezbollah does eke out a victory, Hassan Nasrallah will find himself in an interesting position. He’ll have more power than ever, but he’ll also have much more to lose. Many supporters of the Hezbollah-led coalition agree with “March 14″ on certain key points. The International Peace Institute produced some revealing data last summer. Eighty-two percent of Lebanese polled said they support UN Resolution 1559 that requires the disarmament of all Lebanese and Palestinian militias – including Hezbollah. Eighty-four percent said they support Resolution 1701 that bans shipments of arms to militias – including Hezbollah. Only 34 percent said they are confident Hezbollah can provide security in their neighborhood, compared with 93 percent who say the Lebanese Army can. Seventy-six percent said only the Lebanese Army should be armed, and 55 percent said Hezbollah’s very existence as an armed militia makes war with Israel likelier.
Lebanese political coalitions are ever-shifting kaleidoscopes. All internal alliances are unstable. Today’s enemy is tomorrow’s friend, and vice-versa. It’s impossible for anyone who votes for one or another slate of parties to be happy with everything they’re going to get. Should Nasrallah win, it would be wise of him not to blow his victory and country away by starting something stupid with Israel. But as Druze chief Walid Jumblatt said of him recently, “It is not nice to be in a bunker. Being away from reality, you will ultimately fail to grasp reality.”
Our cold war with Iran unfolds in Lebanon.
The New Republic, Wednesday, May 20, 2009
‘Yes, sometimes I go into the room with my advisers and I start shouting. And then they say, ‘And then what?'” The question hangs in the perfectly cooled air in Sa’ad Hariri’s marble-floored sitting room, where Beirut appears as a sunlit abstraction visible at a distance through thick windows. Hariri’s father, the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, martyr of the Cedar Revolution, arches his black eyebrows from a giant poster near the sofa, looking out at his son with a sidelong, mischievous glance. “It hasn’t been a joyful trip,” Sa’ad Hariri is saying. “In the past four years, I have lost friends. Pierre Gemayel was my friend. My father was murdered. It’s been an agonizing four years.”
You can see at once what life has become for him. Sa’ad Hariri is a fun-loving guy who enjoys playing Xbox and sports a neat, three-tiered arrangement of facial hair that makes him look like a late-night magician from Las Vegas. Now, he spends most of his days indoors, in a lavishly appointed eight-story building ringed with checkpoints. Surrounded by security guards, aging generals, and family advisers, he takes meeting after meeting in preparation for Lebanon’s June 7 election, while heroically passing up the succulent lamb dishes and tasty Lebanese sweets that are offered to his guests. The streets around his headquarters are closed to vehicular traffic to prevent another car bombing like the one that killed his father. Banners outside read “Al Mustaqbal”–“The Future”–the name of the Sunni political movement at the center of the March 14 coalition, which takes its moniker from the date of the massive public demonstration that helped pressure Syria to leave the country in 2005 and is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia in their effort to keep formal political power in Lebanon from passing into the hands of Hezbollah.
“Yes, this is a very nice house,” Hariri says, when I compliment him on the impressive luxury of his surroundings. “But you try living in a house, any house, for four years without going outside.” To reduce the chances of a security breach, he leaves the building on short notice, zipping off in armored convoys to hand out new sports centers and improved sewers to his supporters, who are the beneficiaries of hundreds of millions of Saudi dollars that are flowing to Hariri’s coalition. In the evening, he retires to a single secure floor of his adjacent residence. If he wants to go out at night to restaurants or cafes, he has to leave the country. “It’s like living in a bunker,” he says with a shrug.
The secure rooms in which Sa’ad Hariri spends his days and nights could not be more different from the location Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah uses to broadcast his regular TV addresses to the people of Lebanon–which is said to be an underground bunker in Beirut, equipped with an air filtration system and a dedicated fiber-optic link. From their opposing bunkers, the two men are vying for supremacy in the June parliamentary elections. The March 14 coalition, anchored by Hariri’s Future Party, includes the remnants of the Christian Phalange party, as well as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party. Hezbollah runs a joint parliamentary list with Amal, a Shia party that presides over an old-fashioned political machine that would be recognizable in Chicago. Together, the Shia parties anchor the opposing March 8 coalition, which receives material aid from Iran and Syria and also includes the Christian followers of GeneralMichel Aoun, a Bonapartist figure who regards himself as the rightful savior of Lebanon.
The true importance of the June 7 elections has less to do with the contest between Hariri and Nasrallah, or the formal balance of power inside Lebanon, than it does with the increasingly tense struggle between the two main power groupings in the Middle East: the alliance of America’s regional clients that includes Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel; and the Iranian-Syrian axis whose push for a bigger share of political power in Lebanon was ratified by last year’s Doha agreement. The formal power-sharing arrangement reached by the Lebanese in Doha can be understood as the product of a political stalemate that resulted from a Syrian campaign of assassination and a failed attempt by the U. S.-backed government to counter Hezbollah’s weapons by extending the power of the state. The Doha agreement granted Hezbollah and its allies a “blocking third” in the cabinet, which allowed the Party of God to veto any decisions of the Lebanese government with which it did not agree–like taking Hezbollah’s cameras out of the airport, or shutting down the party’s private communications network, or controlling the country’s borders with Syria so that Iranian missiles cannot continue to enter southern Lebanon.
There are two likely outcomes in the upcoming election–a narrow Hezbollah loss or a narrow Hezbollah win. A narrow loss will ratify the veto power granted to the party in Doha. A narrow win will give Hezbollah formal political control over the Lebanese state. Either way, the election will provide very public evidence of the declining influence of the United States in Lebanon and the growing power of Iran. In the new Middle East, Tehran–armed with the strategic insulation that nuclear weapons confer–will be able to destabilize any government it doesn’t like without fear of military reprisal. As nearby regimes weigh the pros and cons of life inside the nuclear cage with the Iranian tiger, Lebanon offers a preview of what the future might be like.
Everywhere I go in Beirut, I find the same strange oscillation between the assumption of relative normalcy and the belief that in a week, or a month, or a year at the most, the country will collapse. (The New Opinion Group, an NGO aligned with March 14, has brought a group of American journalists here, including me, Jacob Weisberg of Slate, Michael Tomasky of The Guardian, and Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times. The organization deserves thanks for paying for much of the trip, helping to arrange some of my interviews, and turning a blind eye to my meetings with people it disapproves of.) I have coffee in the upscale Christian neighborhood of Ashrafiyeh one afternoon with a young Shia artist who teaches in the public schools. She tells me that her students are being trained to use weapons at clubs led by the Lebanese Forces militia of Samir Geagea, a Hariri ally. Her best friend, a Sunni woman who lives in Dahiya, Hezbollah’s stronghold, shudders at any talk of politics. “I will give my support to no one,” she says, as she plays with her long black hair. “I want to eat. To dance.” Recently, she visited her sister in Toronto, she says, but she doesn’t think she will be going again. Leaving the country makes it harder to live here. If she could, she would leave Lebanon and never come back.
Earlier that day, my group met with the secretary-general of the March 14 movement, Fares Souhaid, who is the kind of honest public intellectual you might find teaching sociology at a university in the former Yugoslavia. There are indeed Shia who back March 14 and oppose Hezbollah, he says. He describes the movement’s support among the Shia as consisting of “drug traffickers,” “leftists from Baalbek and Bekaa,” some members of traditional families and clans (“but they are very weak”), as well as “some persons who are very modern, ” who were born in Africa and educated in Paris and became “over-civilized.” When someone asks about the prospect of an Iranian bomb, a young Shia reporter nods his head, gesturing toward a dozen well-meaning intellectuals and newspaper editorialists affiliated with the March 14 movement who are sitting around the table: “The people you see here will be in front of theU.S. Embassy and the Canadian Embassy trying to get a visa.”
Violence here takes place in the shadows, with occasional public eruptions like Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, or the events of May 2008, when the central government moved on Hezbollah’s private communications network, backed by Sunni villagers armed with light weapons who had been imported from the north. The result of this amateurish gambit was that Nasrallah sent his cadres into the streets, disarmed the Sunnis, and seized Beirut from the central government, which then granted him a slice of formal state power at Doha.
In between such delicate moments, you can get a pretty accurate sense of how Lebanon works by sitting in a restaurant in the Albergo Hotel, a decidedly luxurious place where I had lunch with a former intelligence professional and watched a dozen Lebanese cabinet ministers savor excellent Italian dishes. The tailored suits, the loosened ties, the broad hands, the arrangement of tall flowers in the center of the room–the scene had the sunlit inner presence, the radiant sensual completeness, of the world of physical objects as painted by Bonnard or Vuillard. Watching the ministers as they conducted their business, it was easy to see how the philosophical embrace of the physical world makes good sense here. Nasrallah and his patrons in Iran guarantee the stability of the country while, day to day, mouthing all kinds of insane stuff designed to paralyze the faculty of reason. Someday soon, the key will turn in the lock, the door will open, and they will blow Lebanon to smithereens. Meanwhile, there are precious moments of physical existence to be savored, such as a diamond necklace for one’s wife, a pair of earrings for one’s mistress, a sizeable deposit in a numbered bank account, and shrimp fettucini at the Albergo.
Outside the fading mansion of Amin Gemayel, the former Lebanese president, a group of middle-aged guards goes through my bags while keeping an eye on the street traffic for signs of unusually rapid acceleration. Gemayel served as president between 1982 and 1988, as a replacement for his brother Bashir, who sought to end the Lebanese civil war by inviting the Israelis in to kick the Palestinians out, thereby assuring continued Christian political supremacy. A strong, arrogant guy, Bashir Gemayel was blown up by a large bomb, which is a common fate for people who try to remake Lebanon.
With his dark tanned skin, proud nose, and gray hair swept back from his forehead, Amin Gemayel looks like he would be at home on the deck of a sailboat in the south of France. His eyes have the watery, dignified look of injured nobility. Hezbollah, Gemayel says, is a “cheval de Troie”–a Trojan horse–that serves the interests of Iran. “Hezbollah is considered to be part of the Pasdaran,” he says, using the Farsi name for the Revolutionary Guard. “In the form of Hezbollah, they get a brigade of the Iranian army on the Mediterranean and onthe border with Israel. So one hundred million dollars a year that they spend here is nothing.”
However accurate his intelligence may be, it is clear that Amin Gemayel, with his patrician bearing and his talk about Lebanese neutrality, belongs in a waxworks museum dedicated to a Middle East that doesn’t exist anymore.Gemayel’s longtime ally and enemy, Walid Jumblatt, is a more relevant factor in the upcoming elections. Whip thin, with a bald pate, long hair in back, and a drooping salt-and-pepper mustache, he looks like Pete Townshend of The Who, or any other aging English rocker who has turned to the life of a country squire. The impression of aging rock-and-roll royalty is heightened by his blue jeans, which are nicely accented by a blue shirt collar poking up beneath his thin, charcoal-colored cashmere sweater.
The idea of disarming Hezbollah by force is absurd, Jumblatt says. “We can do nothing,” he explains, dismissing the failed assault on Hezbollah last May. “It was a mistake by the Hariri clan. They thought that by bringing some elements from the north they could alter the balance of power in Beirut. It was a big mistake.”
While May 2008 was a defeat for Sa’ad Hariri, Jumblatt says, it was also a defeat for Hezbollah. He expects Hezbollah to make more such mistakes in the future. “It is not nice to be in a bunker,” Jumblatt says, speaking of Hassan Nasrallah as he reaches down under the table to massage the skull of his large white dog. “Being away from reality, you will ultimately fail to grasp reality.”
It is clear that Walid Jumblatt is hedging his bets. He is increasingly friendly with Amal leader Nabih Berri. They talk often on the phone. U.S. military power is ebbing out of the region and won’t be coming back anytime soon. Two years from now, or five years from now, or nine months from now, Iran will test a nuclear bomb, and then the new order will be revealed. No one wants to get caught on the wrong side.
On a Saturday afternoon, I skip the announcement of the March 14 movement’s electoral platform and take a cab to the headquarters of the Internal Security Forces (ISF), secure whitewashed barracks that seem to exist on a different planet from the slow-paced languor of Lebanese government ministries. Uniformed men move with a sense of direction and purpose that makes it impossible to linger for more than five seconds in a hallway or by an elevator without someone pressing a button and moving you on your way. Heavy blast doors seal off the secure areas of the building, and approaches are monitored on omnipresent flat-panel video screens. The furniture is brand new, and the hallways are lined with Lebanese flags and martyr portraits of ISF officers who were blown up by Syrian bombs. This is the preserve of Major General Ashraf Rifi. His office is large, functional, and clean. The display cases on the walls are filled with policemen’s trinkets, including a pewter plate from the Germans and a discrete inscribed plaque from Detlev Mehlis, for gathering evidence in the Hariri investigation, which is now stalled at The Hague.
Rifi is a Sunni Muslim with the pale complexion and erect bearing of a veteran French colonial officer. He speaks fluent French, which is a suitable language for lost causes. I ask him whether he imagines a time when officers of the Pasdaran, of whom there are said to be about three dozen inside Lebanon at the moment, would not be able to use his country as a military base. “I think everyone in my position would hope for the day when they can control the security of their country one hundred percent,” he says with a sigh. “I hope that, whether he is an Iranian officer, or aSyrian, or from anywhere else, that they can enter the country in an official way, in a normal manner.”
If one is searching for a sign that Lebanon is not a ghost state completely at the mercy of foreign powers, then the ISF is probably the place to look. The organization’s proudest success of recent years is the unraveling of Fatah Al Islam, a terrorist group that had fought the Lebanese army to a standstill for three months in the spring and summer of 2007 at the Palestinian refugee camp of Nahr Al Bared. According to ISF sources and a variety of published and broadcast news reports, the members of Fatah Al Islam included a motley assortment of Lebanese, Chechens, Saudis, Yemenis, and Syrian Palestinians, who thought they were going to training camps in order to learn how to fight the Americans in Iraq. “I think that Fatah Al Islam is an organization fabricated by some intelligence services, in a rather complex manner,” Rifi says, choosing his words very carefully as he eyes the tape recorder on his desk. “I think that only the Lebanese magistrates can define the relationship between Fatah Al Islam and the Syrians or other groups.”
After first taking control of weapons, explosives, and other material belonging to a Syrian-backed group called Fatah Al Intifada inside the Nahr Al Bared camp, the organization began robbing banks. It set off bombs in a Christian village on the eve of the second anniversary of the Hariri assassination and hatched plans to create a Sunni jihadist emirate in the north. After killing more than 160 members of the Lebanese security forces in a three-month-long siege at Nahr Al Bared, the leaders of Fatah Al Islam somehow escaped. Led by a new generation of homegrown Lebanese Sunni jihadists–who were apparently ignorant of the fact that their organization was not a real jihadist group, but a front being manipulated by the Syrian state security services–the organization began another bombing campaign targeting the Lebanese army and the ISF.
At this point, local security sources and some published reports suggest, the Syrians seem to have realized that the group had spun out of their control and may have betrayed its leaders to Lebanese state security through a local proxy. Confronted with the Syrian betrayal, the new Fatah Al Islam abruptly reversed course, and set off a 200-kilogram car bomb in Damascus near an intelligence complex. (In a March 2007 New Yorker article, Seymour Hersh suggested that Fatah Al Islam was being turned against Syria at the behest of Vice President Dick Cheney.)
The story of Fatah Al Islam shows two important things about Lebanon: The first is that, appearances aside, political violence here is orchestrated by states, not by local organizations and individuals. The second is that the few security successes that one can attribute to the central government over the past five years can just as easily be used to demonstrate the limits of the government’s meager capacities. Syrian state security found other creative ways to strike at the ISF and destabilize Lebanon, beginning with a series of bombs that targeted ISF officers who were close to Ashraf Rifi and had participated in the investigation of the Hariri murder. “Wissam Eid was an engineer in telecommunication and I.T. who presided over our technical branch,” he explains, when I ask him about the murdered ISF officer whose portrait hangs throughout the building. “They killed him for the files about major crimes in Lebanon, because they knew that he had played an important role.”
While Rifi declines to name the people behind Eid’s killing, he agrees that the death of his aide was not an accident, but rather a message that was intended for him by an outside power–which could only be Syria. “It is the third message,” he explains. The first message was when someone rigged a grenade to explode at the door of Eid’s home in the Beirut neighborhood of Hadath. As Eid wentto open his door, the grenade went off prematurely, and he escaped unharmed. The chief ISF investigator on the Hariri case, Lieutenant Colonel Shehadeh, was then targeted by a bomb that killed four of his bodyguards. “All of these messages are, I think, directed to me, saying, ‘Stop improving your capacity to confront terrorists,'” Rifi tells me.
Given the fact that the ISF is powerless to stop the Syrians from setting off bombs, it is silly to expect the internal security service to stop Iranian military officers from operating inside the country. Hezbollah regularly thumbs its nose at the ISF and the Lebanese central government, which is powerless to control it. In a speech delivered on February 16, 2007, for example, Hassan Nasrallah had this to say about the question of whether Hezbollah was obeying United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1701 and 1559, which prohibited the organization from importing more arms into Lebanon. “We are being very clear and we are saying that we have arms,” Hezbollah’s leader boldly declared. “We have arms … of all shapes and sizes. … The resistance has arms. It is saying it in public, adding that it is rearming and increasing the scope of its armament in order to get more dangerous arms.”
Nasrallah then proceeded to do what the Lebanese security services are too afraid to do, which is to describe exactly how the arms are transported. “We are transporting the arms secretly and in straw trucks so as to not embarrass you,” he explained, speaking directly to the Lebanese government. “I am saying that we will remain on the border, in Beirut, and everywhere in Lebanon.”
The Dahiya neighborhood of Beirut where Hezbollah makes its home is an odd mix of tree-shaded streets, run-down alleyways, and large apartment blocs that seem like they were airlifted from Gaza City. On my way to see a Hezbollah official, I drive past an amusement park for the Third World poor, one of those places where a smiling generic cartoon mouse welcomes children to ride the Tilt-A-Whirl. Young girls in black robes and headscarves stand by the entrance to the park with babies in their arms and younger children tugging at their sleeves. The amusement park is where older sisters can be with their friends while giving their overburdened mothers a break. The roads are lined with large green-and-yellow martyr posters of the famous terrorist Imad Mughniyah–assassinated last year in Damascus–with a slight smile tugging at the corners of his well-trimmed beard. Yellow construction cranes are everywhere.
The scale of the destruction visited on Dahiya during the 2006 war can be measured in two ways–by the depth of the numerous apartment-building-sized pits filled with rubble, and by the even greater number of new 15-story-tall construction shells. Outside each half-finished structure is a large placard with a dreamy, semi-abstract architect’s rendering of what the finished building will look like. Finding the algebraic equation that reconciles martyr posters of Imad Mughniyah with the promise of brand-new apartment buildings featuring plate glass windows and flush toilets is the key to understanding what goes on here. One explanation is that Hezbollah is a real political party that answers to the spiritual and material needs of the Shia of Lebanon, who seek justice and wish for a better life for their children. Another is that what the people of Lebanon want and what they get have no necessary connection to each other. The real decisions are made elsewhere.
The Hezbollah media office is located above a shop selling tapes and videos of Musa Al Sadr and other Shia religious paraphernalia in a small building off Bir Al Abd street. I am accompanied up the stairs by Judith Miller, the pixie-ish former New York Times reporter. We are ushered into a room with an ornate wooden high-backed couch with carved arms and reddish upholstery. It is the kind of furniture that is sold to poor people on credit. My grandmother in Montreal had a living room set like that, in a more cheerful blue and gold fleur-de-lis pattern which she covered in plastic to make the upholstery last longer. Ibrahim Mousawi, the Hezbollah media chief, asks me to fill out a form listing my home and office address and to provide him with a copy of my passport. I look over at Judy Miller, who shrugs. I hesitate for a moment, calculate a Brooklyn street address that is located in the middle of the East River, write my new address on the form, then take out a Canadian national identity card from my wallet.
The formalities concluded, I ask Mousawi to explain the conditions under which Hezbollah asks Iran for advice. “It has nothing to do with Iran,” he says. “These are purely religious questions. In Shia Islam,” he continues, in his modest, scholarly way, “we have a concept called the Wilayat Al Faqih, the mandate of the jurisconsult, or Supreme Guide. I wrote my dissertation in England on this subject. The Wilayat Al Faqih is a concept that is central to Islam, but it was crystallized in the thought of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Even when the Ayatollah Khomeini was living in France, he was still the Wali Al Faqih. So you see that this is a purely religious question that has nothing to do with Iran. The followers of the Wali Al Faqih would emulate him wherever he is, and wherever they are.”
I ask Mousawi if he would agree that all questions in life have a religious dimension. He gives me a curious look, and then agrees. “Like the question of whether three fighters should explode themselves against an Israeli patrol, in a certain time and place near the border,” I suggest. Mousawi is an intelligent man who enjoys the process of disputation. “Every aspect of life has a religious dimension,” he answers. I ask Mousawi about a quote from Hezbollah’s number two, Naim Qassem, in which he talked about submitting Hezbollah’s decision to become a political party in 1992 to Iran. He reaches into his bookshelf and tosses me a copy of Qassem’s book, translated into English. “Find it,” he says. Score one for Mousawi.
Later, once we are back in the car, we pass one of the biggest rubble-filled pits I have ever seen, the size of a city block. Something awful happened here. The scale of the destruction reminds me of the giant hole in the ground that lingers across the river from my apartment in Brooklyn. The block where we are standing was a group of 17 apartment buildings that housed a large number of high-level Hezbollah functionaries, my companion tells me. The Israelis leveled the entire block in three minutes on the last day of the war. “They are thinking that Hassan is here,” he says. We get back in the car and drive down a side street, past the Ayatollah Khomeini, looking somber in a long black robe with his outstretched sorcerer’s hand summoning forth his magic from the ruins.
Tonight, Hassan Nasrallah will give a speech in honor of the birth of the Prophet Mohammed. His functionaries and supporters will gather to hear him in a meeting hall in Roweis, an enormous Quonset hut with a sign out front prohibiting the entrance of weapons and cell phones. Nasrallah himself will not be in the hall, but rather in a bunker thought to be equipped with a fiber-optic cable connected to Hezbollah’s proprietary communications network. The signal will make its way from Nasrallah’s bunker, presumably through filters that will disguise its origin, and then be routed over to the hall. Cameras inside the hall will broadcast pictures of the audience back to their leader, so he can see the reaction to his words. Footage from the two locations will then be cut together by Hezbollah’s technicians to provide viewers with the illusion that the speaker and his audience are communicating with each other in the same room.
I watch Nasrallah’s broadcast from the studio of Future TV, which is, by far, the nicest television studio in Beirut. Inside, glass-fronted executive triangles are cantilevered over a spacious bullpen that is bisected in turn by a translucent glass catwalk that looks like the kind of retro-spaceship design feature you might see in a Prada store. The banks of plasma monitors on the wall offer a montage of our interconnected world. There is Putin in a black sweater talking from Moscow, the Dalai Lama, Lance Armstrong, and young sheiks in robes. The Brazilian national soccer team celebrates a goal. Al Jazeera shows a carefully edited montage of scenes from Israel: Benjamin Netanyahu, girl soldiers with guns, shabby, run-down blocks in Tel Aviv, and bearded weirdos dancing with a Torah scroll. When Hezbollah came here in May 2008, my friend tells me, it didn’t smash or burn any of the equipment. It snipped a few wires, and thestation went dark.
Nasrallah is speaking. A big bank of red and yellow roses in front of him distract attention from the fact that he is not inside the meeting hall, but in a bunker. He is wearing an earth-brown robe, which suggests springtime and new beginnings, and a black turban. Behind him is the yellow flag of Hezbollah, half-furled, which has combined with the Lebanese flag standing next to it so that the two flags appear to be one. It is the flag of the new Lebanon.
Nasrallah begins as he always does. “I take refuge in God from the accursed Satan,” he says, before he congratulates his listeners on the anniversary of the prophet’s birth.
The Year of the Elephant, in which the Prophet Mohammed was born, occurred 40 years before the birth of Islam, he says. In that year, the Abyssinian King Abraha, whose realm extended into the Arabian Peninsula and Yemen, decided to attack Mecca and demolish the holy Ka’aba. But his efforts failed. “So finally Abraha–just as the world’s tyrantsusually do–resorted to forming a huge army and mustered all the strength and weapons that were available in that age, and harnessed a number of elephants.”
Abraha headed for Mecca, and the Arabs fled. Quraysh, the master of the city and its diverse tribes and clans, could not protect the Ka’aba. Nasrallah’s listeners are clearly meant to identify the parallels between today’s political players in the Middle East and Abraha’s mighty elephants, the panicked Arabs, and the wealthy traders who ruled Mecca. To defend the Ka’aba, Nasrallah continues, Allah sent flocks of birds, “feathered flocks,” carrying “stones of baked clay … small stones, which they began to hurl at the soldiers, horses, and elephants. The army panicked and its defeat began.”
Nasrallah speaks in a clear and fluent way, without pausing or stumbling. His voice is energetic and insistent. He looks down occasionally at his notes, on sheets of white paper that he hides behind the roses. As he talks, the camera switches back and forth from his face beneath the lights inside the bunker to shots of the crowd in the big hall in Dahiya, where little kids sit on plastic chairs with their mothers and rows of men gaze up at the screen, fingering worry beads and smoking cigarettes. The reaction shots make Nasrallahlook less isolated. “Even in the details of the event we find that Almighty God–in order to humiliate those mighty and arrogant aggressors–did not send against them the greatest, strongest, and toughest of His creatures,” Nasrallah explains, “but sent against them birds that hurled at them small stones to defeat them.”
There are plenty of clues as to the patched-together nature of the performance that viewers are watching. The notables seated in the front row of the lecture hall gaze up at their leader in an odd way, because the screen queers the normal angle at which you would hold your head while listening to a speaker in a public hall. Nasrallah is sweating heavily, which suggests thathe is standing in a small room under hot lights. I wonder about the heatsignature of an air-conditioning unit powerful enough to cool a windowless TV studio. The camera cuts to bored-looking women in the audience and then to a row of three cute little kids, each with a Hezbollah flag. One of the kids has a Lebanese flag, which the others examine curiously. Guys in Hezbollah security vests patrol the aisles. Every time the video switches back to Nasrallah, the audio switches, too, and the applause from the hall abruptly cuts off.
“I also tell you with all frankness that this International Criminal Court has never proved that it is a fair court,” Nasrallah says, attacking the call to prosecute President Omar Al Bashir of Sudan. “For thirty-three days in the July war, television screens kept showing Israeli crimes, the killing of women, children, and the elderly and the devastation and destruction of entire villages, and not only neighborhoods. This was done by clear orders and sponsorship of Olmert, Livni, Halutz, and others, but this court did not bat an eye.”
Thumping, scratching at himself, he marks time with the rhythmic motion of hands, which opens up space in the listener’s mind for his thoughts to enter. His voice is outraged, and then conversational. He squeezes the listener in his grasp, in the mathematical procession of his logic, which moves from point to point in an unhurried and clear way. Then he releases the tension with a high note of outrage, or a sardonic joke.He’s the best thing going in Dahiya on a Friday night. There is no question that if the purpose of the Lebanese elections were to select the most capable manin the country, regardless of party orforeign affiliations, Nasrallah would win in a landslide.
America’s call for dialogue is evidence that the United States is weak, and its policies in the region have failed, he says. “Iran is thirty years old, eight years of which were war and twenty-two years were sanctions. But its strength, impregnability, and presence are growing. It is going into space and manufacturing its materials, both civilian and military.”
Nasrallah has many complaints about the West. The West puts Hezbollah and the Al Manar TV station on its terrorism list. It puts individuals on the list, too. “One of them was Al Hajj Mughniyah, God have mercy on his soul,” Nasrallah says. He wants everyone to know about Imad Mughniyah. “They say, ‘You are accused of well-known acts of terrorism. But we will forgive you,'” he says, mocking those in the West who call for dialogue under the mistaken impression that they hold the power. “They accused us of shedding the blood of the Americans, but they will forgive us.”
The Americans have only two conditions, he continues, which are to recognize Israel and renounce violence. “As for the U.S. conditions, they are rejected,” he says shortly. “I tell you, and today is the anniversary of the birth of the prophet, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, and this year is 2009 which coincides with the year 1430 of the hegira: Today, tomorrow, one year from now, and even after one hundred or one thousand years and till doomsday, we, our children, and grandsons and our generations, and as long as we are Hezbollah, we will never recognize Israel.” The crowd rises out of their seats and pumps their fists in the air. This is what they came to hear.
“Israel is a usurping entity,” Nasrallah continues. “It is a racist and aggressive state. It is a terrorist state. By what standard can a Muslim or an Arab recognize such an entity and simply say that this is Israel?” he asks.
The logic of the Year of the Elephant is the only logic that the enemy has. It is the logic of defeat and impotence. It is pre-Islamic logic. Hezbollah manfully rejects such proposals. Never in a thousand years will Hezbollah recognize Israel or renounce violence, in deed or even in words. “If we stand on our feet, enhance our resolve, and join hands together and stand shoulder to shoulder,” he promises, with a heroic shudder, “we will be able to defeat this entity and even to eliminate it from existence.”
The news shows immediately report on his every word, because he holds Lebanon in the palm of his hand. My friend at Future TV, who, like every other ordinary Lebanese person I meet, is very friendly and polite and asks me to please not print his name in my article, appears to be depressed. “Did Hassan Nasrallah ever have an espresso at a cafe in Beirut?” he asks. “Did he ever go out to a restaurant and eat a steak?”
He and his wife are both Shia, he tells me, as he cleans his papers from his desk after another long night. Last Ashura, he was in his brand new car with his wife, and they were listening to Nasrallah give a speech over the radio. “He was talking about death,” he explains. “He was asking, ‘Have you ever heard of the last moments before death?’ You have no idea how terrible these moments are. He was describing the very precise nature of this pain. His point was that the only way to die is as a martyr. He said, ‘As you know, everyone dies. So why not choose to die as a martyr, and save yourself the pain of these awful moments between life and death?'”
In the silence of the empty TV studio, he stops for a minute before gathering his things. “I am driving my 2009 car, and this guy is telling me how to die better,” he says quietly. “Two hours before I was talking with my financial adviser in Boston.” He stops, and looks to see if I have the slightest idea of what it means to inhabit a world that has been torn into pieces, and is now being handed to a gang of bearded medievalists, backed by the bright promise of an Iranian nuclear bomb. “So, practically, you see, this is our problem.”
David Samuels is the author of Only Love Can Break Your Heart and The Runner: A True Account of the Amazing Lies and Fantastical Adventures of the Ivy League Impostor James Hogue.
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have put his foot in it once too often
From The Economist print edition
May 7th 2009
WHEN Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, came home from speaking at a UN conference on racism in Geneva last month, state television beamed images of a cheering crowd that turned out to greet him. A foreign-ministry statement trumpeted his performance—including a speech that termed Zionism a form of racism deserving of eradication, which sparked a walk-out by many delegates—as an example of Iran’s brilliant diplomacy.
Yet such official adulation looks increasingly at odds with public sentiment. Since winning office in 2005, Iran’s rabble-rousing president has always been controversial. Now, with the first round of a presidential poll due in five weeks and campaigning in full swing, his rival candidates are saying things aloud that Iranians have been more used to hearing in whispers.
“The president’s speeches have harmed Iran’s interests,” is the blunt opinion of Mehdi Karroubi, a senior reformist cleric whose campaign slogan is simply “change”. Referring to Mr Ahmadinejad’s vocal scepticism about the historical reality of the Holocaust, Mr Karroubi declares it of no concern to Iran whether the mass murder of European Jews took place or not. Harping on the issue merely provokes hostility, he says, insisting that if he were in charge, improving relations with the West would be a priority.
The other leading reformist challenger, Mir Hosein Mousavi, a former prime minister, has attacked Mr Ahmadinejad’s adventurism in foreign affairs and acidly calls for a “return to rationality”. Mohsen Rezaie, a former commander of the Revolutionary Guards and the strongest claimant to emerge from the incumbent’s own extreme-right corner, gives warning even more darkly that unless he is unseated Mr Ahmadinejad will “drag Iran over a cliff”.
The candidates have been equally outspoken on domestic issues. Mr Mousavi says he supports the release of campaigners who have been imprisoned for demanding freedoms. Addressing the concerns of youths who chafe at the stricter imposition of Islamic rules under Mr Ahmadinejad, he vows to disband the Guidance Patrols that harass and arrest people accused of immodest behaviour. Mr Karroubi has even challenged his fellow clerics who run Iran’s courts, sharply attacking those who sentence under-aged offenders to death.
Seen as threatening by self-professed guardians of the Islamic Revolution, such pronouncements have prompted some conservatives to rally around Mr Ahmadinejad. In late April, a coalition of 14 groups describing themselves as “principlists” declared their backing for him. Their move was widely interpreted as an endorsement of the incumbent by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Yet even Mr Khamenei, who has long subtly promoted Mr Ahmadinejad while feigning a regal distance from the political fray, is signalling doubts about his protégé. Recently he took the unusual step of publicly scolding the president for daring to fire a loyalist cleric who ran the state bureau charged with managing the pilgrimage to Mecca. Taking notice of his shrinking credit, Mr Ahmadinejad cancelled a scheduled South American tour.
His worry is understandable. Poorer Iranians may admire their president’s folksy moral grandstanding, be impressed by the bear-hugs he receives from the leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, and certainly welcome the generous handouts he has dispensed on the no fewer than 58 provincial tours he has undertaken. But their urban and better-educated compatriots tend towards greater scepticism. With inflation running at around 25% and a sharp fall in receipts from oil exports generating a rapid slump in industrial investment, construction and employment, they suspect that Mr Ahmadinejad’s populist policies may have irretrievably squandered the unprecedented $300 billion windfall in oil revenue that Iran earned during his four years in power.
Yet despite broadening discontent with his rule, the president retains strong cards. His core of supporters is more likely to vote than their critics, many of whom yearn for far deeper reforms than even reformist candidates are proposing. Besides, Mr Khamenei, who controls the state media, the courts and zealous paramilitary groups, is widely believed to prefer continuity to change in foreign affairs. This may be particularly true as Iran struggles to find a response to diplomatic overtures from Barack Obama’s administration, which has declared a willingness to turn a new page in America’s long-fraught relations with the Islamic Republic, while continuing to press Iran to curb its nuclear ambitions.
“Letting the world know we are willing to engage”, said America’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, in recent testimony before Congress, “will give us a stronger hand in getting leverage on them when it comes to tough, crippling sanctions.” In the eyes of Iran’s hardliners, this looks suspiciously like a fuzzier version of the carrot-and-stick tactic used by George Bush’s reviled administration. Perhaps, say some observers, this is why they have sought to up the ante by, for instance, having a revolutionary court sentence Roxana Saberi, a 32-year-old Iranian-American journalist, to eight years in prison for allegedly spying against the Islamic Republic.