Iran’s president wants the charges dropped against Hizbollah – or else.
By Con Coughlin
15 October 2010
It is not often that a state visit by a foreign president plunges the host nation into political turmoil. But then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presence in Lebanon is no ordinary visit. On one level, the Iranian president’s controversial tour of southern Lebanon, where yesterday he was literally a stone’s throw from the Israeli border, should be seen as yet another example of the publicity-grabbing exploits that have become the hallmark of this eccentric leader.
What better way to distract attention from Iran’s deepening economic crisis – the direct result of Mr Ahmadinejad’s intransigence over the nuclear programme – than to stage a high-profile visit to about the only place in the world where he can truly be guaranteed a popular welcome.
During the past three decades, Iran has invested billions of dollars in turning the Shia Muslim Hizbollah militia into one of the dominant forces in modern Lebanese politics. When I covered the Lebanese civil war for this newspaper in the mid-1980s, Hizbollah – or The Party of God – was a fringe group in the shadow of the more mainstream Amal movement, which represented Shia interests in the Lebanese parliament.
At that time, Hizbollah’s main claim to fame was its role in blowing up the American embassy and the US and French military barracks with suicide lorry bombs, which, at the time, was a novel terrorist technique that killed hundreds of people. The group also masterminded the hostage crisis that caused Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan to spend years chained to radiators in dank cells in the Bekaa Valley.
So the fact that Hizbollah is now Lebanon’s main political party, and a leading member of the coalition government, shows how far Iran’s pet militia has come during the past 25 years. More to the point, its leadership also shares Iran’s nihilistic attitude towards the feisty little Jewish state that is located on the other side of Lebanon’s southern border. Armed and equipped by Iran, Hizbollah has already provoked one war with Israel, in the summer of 2006. And, given the thousands of missiles and rockets that Tehran continues to smuggle to Hizbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon, the militia clearly believes there is another conflict in the offing.
That is certainly Iran’s view. The country’s leaders regard Hizbollah’s presence in southern Lebanon as the front line in their war with Israel. If the Israeli government was ever reckless enough to carry out its promise to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, an important component of the military response would be to launch a barrage of missiles from southern Lebanon at Israel’s major towns and cities. When Mr Ahmadinejad praised Lebanon for its “resistance to the world’s tyrants”, no one in Israel doubted the barb was aimed at them.
But it is Hizbollah’s continued – though constantly denied – involvement in terrorism, rather than its confrontational posture with its southern neighbour, that is the real motivation behind Mr Ahmadinejad’s decision to become the first Iranian president to visit the region.
In a few weeks’ time, the United Nations special tribunal that has spent the past five years investigating the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is due to publish its findings. Mr Hariri, a self-made Sunni Muslim billionaire who was financing Lebanon’s post-civil war reconstruction, was killed by a car bomb as he drove through Beirut in 2005.
Lebanese security officials immediately suspected Hizbollah because Mr Hariri was demanding that the party disband its militia and arrange for its thousands of fighters to join up with Lebanon’s conventional armed forces. The bombing also bore all the hallmarks of Imad Mugniyeh, who masterminded the 1980s Beirut lorry bombings and who was himself killed by a car bomb in Damascus in 2008.
Details of the UN tribunal’s findings leaked to the Beirut press suggest that, apart from Mugniyeh, the investigators have uncovered evidence that links as many as 50 senior Hizbollah officials to the assassination. This includes intercepts of mobile phone calls made between Hizbollah officials in the days leading up to Mr Hariri’s murder.
In an attempt to distance the organisation from the report’s conclusions, Shiekh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader who lives in permanent hiding for fear of assassination by Israel, issued a video statement in the summer claiming that those involved with Hariri’s assassination were “undisciplined members which the group has no relations with”.
Diplomatic sources in Beirut tell me that, to avoid a confrontation between Hizbollah and the Lebanese government, Saad Hariri, the current prime minister and son of the murdered politician, has offered Nasrallah a deal whereby the assassination is blamed entirely on Mugniyeh, who is no longer in a position to face criminal prosecution. But Nasrallah, who regards Mugniyeh as a “martyr” to Hizbollah’s cause, has refused, and is trying to pressure Mr Hariri to reject the findings of the UN investigation.
This is a hard ask for a man who saw his father blown to pieces by a car bomb. It is also a totally unacceptable proposition for the millions of Christian and Sunni Muslim Lebanese who oppose Hizbollah’s attempts to impose its uncompromising Islamic ideology on their lives.
By parading through Shia-dominated southern Lebanon yesterday, Mr Ahmadinejad was not only demonstrating his loyalty to Tehran’s favourite Islamic militia. He was also sending an uncompromising message to Mr Hariri’s government to drop the charges against Hizbollah, or face the consequences.