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Nasr: Iran Sees Lebanon Strife as Way to Pressure Washington

Interviewee: Vali R. Nasr, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
August 3, 2006

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Vali R. Nasr, a leading CFR expert on Iran and Shiites and author of the new book The Shia Revival, sees the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah as a way for Iran to demonstrate its ability to hold off any Israeli or U.S. military moves and pressure Washington to open wide-ranging normalization talks.

Although the United States is pressing Iran to stop its nuclear program, Nasr says Iran “wants to guarantee its own regime’s survival, and regime survival will only happen if there is some kind of engagement with the United States that is going to de-escalate the tensions in that relationship.”

One of the significant aspects of the fighting between Hezbollah and Israel is the Israeli charge that Hezbollah forces are really an extension of Iran, that Hezbollah is an Iranian "proxy," and that the Israelis are hoping that by destroying as much as they can of Hezbollah, they will send a warning to Iran not to endanger Israel in the future. Is there any truth to this?

There is an element of truth to it, but it is a question of how you characterize it. In other words, Hezbollah has very deep relations with Iran. Its military capability is without doubt the consequence of Iran training and arming them. But does that mean they are completely controlled by Iran, and that they don't have their own interests in Lebanese politics, and their own interest in supporting the Palestinians and Hamas, or their own interest in starting this war with Israel? The fact that you have a greater power and a lesser power, and they have a very tight political and military relationship, does not necessarily make the latter completely dependent on the greater power. I do believe Iran has a lot of influence on Hezbollah—is responsible for it—but I don't think Hezbollah did this completely on Iranian orders. I think there was a convergence of interest in terms of what Iran may have seen in this conflict to benefit it, and what Hezbollah did.

On the other hand, I do agree with the second part of your statement: Israel is hoping first of all to send a very strong signal to Iran, and perhaps the United States also saw a benefit in giving Israel a green light, that Iran would see what a military confrontation could do to Iranian cities or to Iranian military capabilities if the nuclear impasse continues.

Secondly, at least the United States, but also possibly Israel, hopes that by breaking Hezbollah you can weaken Iran regionally. A weakened Iran, one whose wings have been clipped in the Arab world, would be a far more pliable adversary that you could force to negotiate.

The way this war finishes will not only be decisive for Lebanon, it will be greatly decisive for where the balance of power will lie between Israel and Iran, and the United States and Iran on the nuclear issue.

What do you think led Hezbollah to start this current confrontation? Was it to help out Hamas? Was it to help the Iranians out in the nuclear confrontation?

Hezbollah did want to help out Hamas for two reasons: One is that possibly Hezbollah sees Hamas as a sort of proxy of its own as a force that bogs down the Israelis, and therefore diverts attention from exactly the kind of conflict that has now unfolded between Hezbollah and Israel. So they decided they were going to protect Hamas and prevent its destruction because that would allow Israel to focus its attention on Hezbollah. But more immediately Hezbollah very well understood that after the assassination of [former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik] Hariri it lost some of its nationalist support in Lebanon.

And also the Shia-Sunni violence in Iraq was beginning to damage Hezbollah's base of power, which because of its anti-Israeli rhetoric and its struggle against Israel in the 1980s and 1990s had a sort of a Shia-Sunni cross to it. Hezbollah was popular with Sunnis in the region and popular with Palestinians. It was also popular with Shiites in Lebanon. Engaging Israel in a conflict was a way to achieve exactly what Hezbollah has achieved, which is hero status on the Arab street, which now cuts across the Shia-Sunni divide in the region.

Iran has different interests, some of which converge with Hezbollah's. The Iranians, too, would like to divert attention from the Shia-Sunni issue in Iraq onto Israel. They want to get a following on the Arab street, constrict the Arab governments who are U.S. allies, and strengthen themselves regionally as they begin to get into a confrontation with the United Nations and the Western powers over their nuclear issue.

In your book, The Shia Revival, there's an interesting fact which I did not know—when Israeli troops came into Lebanon in 1982, they were greeted as liberators by the Shiites in the south because they were coming in to get rid of the PLO forces, which had oppressed the Shiites in the south of Lebanon—which leads me to ask how did Hezbollah become so anti-Israel?

Well, there are two reasons for it. One is that the reaction the Israeli army got from the Shiites was sort of a spontaneous reaction from frustrated peasants, and also from the Amal organization [a Shiite group in Lebanon], which was extremely angry at the PLO and its allies who they believed not only had suppressed them and brutalized the Shiites, but who they held responsible for the disappearance and possibly killing of their leader Imam Mousa al-Sadr, who went to Libya on a trip and never came back.

Many Shiites, at the same time they were angry at the Palestinians, probably were not comfortable with embracing Israelis too quickly because you could immediately be branded as a collaborator and the like. And don't forget that at that time, Shiites had to constantly prove themselves worthy of being Arab. They were called "Iranian," or "Iranian stooges." In other words, there has always been a pressure on the Shiites to be more Arab than the Arabs just to prove they are part of the family.

Iran's revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ali Khomeini, was following a strategy which is very much like the strategy of Hezbollah, namely to focus attention on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and to try to divert attention from the Shia-Sunni issue. And Hezbollah sort of emerged, if you would, as a reaction to Amal, as a way of saying: "Look, Shia power in Lebanon cannot rise against the grain of Arab politics, which is anti-Israeli. It has to rise by taking over that cause." And that's exactly what Hezbollah is doing today. A Shiite organization has come and taken over the Palestinian cause, and that is what angers Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other predominantly Sunni nations so much.

They were also able to get a following on the street because the perception grew among the Shiites in the south that Israel was not going to leave, and that the Shiites in the south were going to end up like the Palestinians in the West Bank did. Israel was worried that if it left south Lebanon too quickly the PLO would come back because there was a political vacuum after they crushed the PLO. But Israel's single biggest mistake was not to withdraw quickly because once a country's stuck on the ground, very quickly liberator became occupier.

Why do you think Iran provided Hezbollah with so many missiles unless it really wanted Hezbollah to take on Israel?

First of all, they want to preserve Hezbollah. It is the one major success case they have had in building and in getting basically a foothold in the Arab world since the 1980s. Iraq's new government is not as close to Iran as Hezbollah is. There are a lot of people among Iran's military leadership now who have trained Hezbollah. They have a personal, organizational relationship, and there is a relationship between clerics that has spawned since Khomeini took over power. So Iran will continue to help Hezbollah. And Iran is also caught in a situation where once you become associated with a force, which it has been since the 1980s, if that force gets defeated, you are going to pay a political cost. It's kind of like the dilemma the Soviets were stuck in. Once a country became Communist, they could not allow it to be lost—that's what got them into trouble in Afghanistan.

Second, Iran has begun to look at Hezbollah and Hamas essentially as a part of its confrontation with Israel for regional hegemony. In other words, it looks at these organizations as ways of creating an irritant to Israel, diverting Israel's attention, bogging Israel down in local conflicts. In other words, they do serve a strategic purpose for Iran. Iran may not have nuclear weapons to threaten Israel, but it has Hamas and Hezbollah. So they're bargaining chips, they're irritants. And thirdly, in this conflict it's not just the missiles. Iran has given Hezbollah a particular kind of weapons systems, so Israelis and Americans will see what Iran has.

What do you think will happen now as far as the nuclear confrontation with the Security Council goes? Do you think Iran might compromise on the negotiations, or is that not likely?

Basically Iran is stronger now, and the United States' hand is weaker, partly because the United States and the Security Council members are still bogged down in getting it together. And in getting the Lebanon situation stabilized, the West is going to be far less able to deal with Iran. Secondly, Hezbollah is still standing. Th[ese] early goal[s] of destroying it and disarming it are not likely to be achieved. By the time of the cease-fire what the United States and Israel are going to get out of the cease-fire will be far short of the goals they probably set for themselves when the war began about a month ago.

Much more important is that Hezbollah and Iran are now widely popular on the Arab street. All of this makes Iran's hand a lot stronger and the United States' a lot more constricted. In other words, if you looked at Lebanon you would say: "Well, military action against Iran is not likely to be easy. If Hezbollah is this tenacious, Iran is going to be worse." Air wars cannot finish things off. Israel cannot finish Hezbollah with an air war, nor will the United States be able to damage the Iranian regime with an air war. The Lebanese population has not risen in revolt against Hezbollah—the opposite is happening. That could also be the case in Iran as well.

Does Iran really want to negotiate normalization of relations?

I think that's what Iran wants. It doesn't want to negotiate about nuclear weapons. It doesn't want to negotiate about Iraq. It wants to guarantee its own regime's survival, and regime survival will only happen if there is some kind of engagement with the United States that is going to de-escalate the tensions in that relationship. If Iran only negotiated over nuclear weapons, they give something, they get something, and then the next morning the United States is still committed to changing the regime in Tehran. What they want, in other words, is a strategic breakthrough, not a tactical agreement.

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