Sunday, March 06, 2005

Iran: Support of terrorism is less than it seems | The San Diego Union-Tribune

William O. Beeman--Iran: Support of terrorism is less than it seems | The San Diego Union-Tribune: "

Iran: Support of terrorism is less than it seems

By William O. Beeman
March 4, 2005
Of all the accusations leveled against Iran by the United States, the strongest, and least questioned, is the charge that Iran 'is the (world's) most active state sponsor of terrorism,' to quote the U.S. State Department. This claim is both inaccurate and overblown. If the United States ever hopes to influence Iran in other ways, such as persuading Tehran to modify its plans for the development of nuclear power, it must re-examine this long-held article of faith.
The United States government first began to identify Iran as a supporter of terrorist activities in 1984 under the Reagan administration. The accusations have grown more strident from year to year. On an annual basis, the State Department has repeated accusations that Iran has supported virtually every terrorist attack in the world.
This is an astonishing exaggeration. In fact, Iran cannot be linked to any direct attack on the United States since the 444-day hostage crisis, which ended in 1981. The assertions of Iran's continued support for terrorism are prime examples of truth by repetition, used commonly by many conservative commentators, and myriads of U.S. legislators and officials � including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her recent European tour.
Of all of these claims, one alone has some substance. Iranian support for the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah is verifiable. However, the flat statement: 'Iran supports Hezbollah' is simplistic and misleading. It is important to understand the real nature of this support, and the extent to which Iran is actually able to influence the actions of this Shiite Lebanese group. Moreover, it is important to take into consideration the fact that Hezbollah is arguably no longer a terrorist organization, as it could be said to have been 25 years ago.

Iran had an undeniable interest in the fate of the large Shiite community in southern Lebanon following the Revolution of 1978-79. The Lebanese Shiites were under oppression from both Sunnis and Maronite Christians. Moreover, Sunni Palestinian refugees, settled in their midst, both served as a drain on weak local economic resources, and, because of their attacks on Israel, as magnets for violent Israeli retaliation in the region. The Shiites, who were attacked as much as the Palestinians, felt helpless and frustrated, and eventually fought back by forming Hezbollah.

The successful revolution in Iran was enormously inspirational to these Lebanese Shiites, and many Iranians, zealous and excited at their victory over the Pahlavi regime, were looking for ways to spread their revolution. Under these conditions, support for Hezbollah seemed to be virtuous aid for a hapless community of co-religionists under oppression, just as the Iranians had felt themselves to be before the Revolution.

The Iranian central government was weak and scattered after the Revolution. Semi-independent charitable organizations, called bonyads (literally, "foundations") sponsored by individual Shiite clerics began to help the fledgling Hezbollah organization get off the ground. There was little the Khomeini government could do to curtail these operations without endangering public support for the fledgling Republic, since internal power struggles were endemic.

Syria also had a strong role in the early establishment and sustenance of Hezbollah, and its role was far more practical and self-serving that Iran's. Indeed, Iranian ideologues could never have had entre to southern Lebanon without Syria's cooperation.

Now, after nearly two decades, the export of Iranian revolutionary ideology in this loose and uncontrolled manner may have succeeded too well. Hezbollah maintains a stronger commitment to the symbolic legacy of the Iranian Revolution than Iranians themselves. According to Hezbollah expert Daniel Byman, writing recently in Foreign Affairs, " ... (Iran) lacks the means to force a significant change in the (Hezbollah) movement and its goals. It has no real presence on the ground in Lebanon and a call to disarm or cease resistance would likely cause Hezbollah's leadership, or at least its most militant elements simply to sever ties with Tehran's leadership."

In short, although Iranian religionists were instrumental in aiding its establishment, Hezbollah has now taken on a life of its own. Even if all Iranian financial and logistic support were cut off, Hezbollah would not only continue, it would thrive. Put simply, Iran's support is not essential for Hezbollah to continue. Byman flatly states that if the United States is really serious about stopping Hezbollah, it would do better to attack Syria than Iran.

Hezbollah has achieved stability and respectability by becoming as much a social welfare and political organization as a militant resistance organization. According to international relations specialist Dwight J. Simpson, in 2004 it had 12 elected parliamentary members. Moreover many Hezbollah members hold elected positions within local governments. The group had by that time built five hospitals and is building more. It operated 25 primarily secular schools, and provided subsidies to shopkeepers. Its support came primarily from zakat – the charitable "tithe" required of all Muslims – not from Iran.

The Shiites, having seen their co-religionists in Iraq succeed in initial elections there in 2005 have hopes that they too will assume the power in Lebanon that accords with their status as the nation's largest community. As this happens, Hezbollah will fully cease to be a terrorist group and will gradually assume the role of a political organization. Its "terrorist" activities will be reframed as national defense, especially as they gain control of conventional military forces and weapons.

It should be clear to Americans that the Bush administration is stymied in its dealings with Tehran. The prospect of a direct attack on the Iran to bring about "regime change" is not a practical possibility. In part because of specious accusations such as "the most active state supporter of terrorism" charge, Tehran's leaders are all but deaf to American politicians. This standoff would begin to change if the United States would abandon this baseless rhetoric.

Beeman is professor of anthropology and director of Middle East Studies at Brown University and visiting professor of cultural and social anthropology at Stanford University. His coming book is "The Great Satan vs. The Mad Mullahs: How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other." "