Wednesday, August 30, 2006
The Persistence of Illusion
Conn Hallinan | August 30, 2006
Editor: John Feffer, IRC
Foreign Policy In Focus www.fpif.org
The Middle East has always been a place where illusion paves the road to disaster. In 1095, Pope Urban's religious mania launched the Crusades, the reverberations of which still echo through the region. In 1915, Winston Churchill's arrogance led to the World War I bloodbath at Gallipoli. In 2003, George Bush's hubris ignited a spiral of chaos and civil war in Iraq.
Illusions once again threaten to plunge the Middle East into catastrophe. The central hallucination this time is that the war in Lebanon was a “proxy war” with the mullahs in Tehran, what one senior Israeli commander has called “Iran's western front.” Behind this hallucination is yet another. According to William O. Beeman, a professor of anthropology and Middle East studies at Brown University, there is “a longstanding U.S. foreign policy myth that believes terrorism cannot exist without state support.”
In short, if Hezbollah exists, it is solely because of Iran. This particular illusion, according to a number of journalists, is behind the carte blanche the White House handed the Israelis during the war in Lebanon (see Stephen Zunes, How Washington Goaded Israel).
As a result of the Lebanon debacle, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Kadima Party is almost certainly dead. A Dahaf Institute poll found that 63% of Israelis want the Prime Minister out, and 74% want to oust Defense Minister and Labor Party leader Amir Peretz. The latter is busy trying to shift the blame to Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. General Dan Halutz (54% want him to resign) for claiming that Hezbollah could be destroyed from the air.
The army is whispering that the politicians held them back, and the politicians are grumbling that the army mishandled its budget. Olmert is stonewalling a formal inquiry on the war, which almost 70% of the population is demanding, and the reservists are up in arms. After 34 days of war, Hezbollah is intact, and the two soldiers whose capture kicked the whole thing off are still in its hands. Last but not least, the war knocked 1% off Israel's GNP.
The war's outcome is giving some Israelis pause, and there are some interesting straws in the wind. Amir Peretz, for instance, has called for negotiations with the Palestinians. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni says she is willing to “explore” the idea of talks with Syria. Public Security Minister Avi Dichter has gone even further and says Israel should give up the Golan Heights.
It is not clear where these discussions are going. If nothing else, however, the war has energized an Israeli peace movement, one rather more inclusive than such movements in the past.
For the Bush administration and its neoconservative allies, the ceasefire is just a break between rounds in the president's war on “Islamofascism.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says the United States is “in an emerging third world war.” William Kristol calls the Lebanon war an “act of Iranian aggression” and urges the United States to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, neocon heavy Max Boot calls for a U.S. attack on Syria.
According to journalist Sidney Blumenthal in Salon, the neocons in the administration, specifically Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Agency Middle East Director Elliott Abrams, have been funneling U.S. intelligence intercepts to the Israelis as part of a plan to target Syria and Iran (see Tom Barry, Hunting Monsters with Elliott Abrams).
Those intercepts were behind the recent House Intelligence Committee report blasting U.S. spy agencies for their reluctance to say that Hezbollah is nothing more than an extension of Iran, that Tehran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons, and that Iran poses a clear and present danger to the United States.
The author of the House report, Frederick Fleitz, was a former special assistant to current UN Ambassador John Bolton. Bolton was a key figure in gathering the now-discredited intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
According to Blumenthal, Cheney and his Middle East aide David Wurmser have dusted off a 1996 document called “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” The study was authored by Wurmser, ex-Pentagon official Douglas Feith, and Richard Perle, disgraced former head of the Defense Policy Board.
The “Break”—originally written for then-Likud prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu—advocates that the Israelis, with support from the United States, dump the 1992 Oslo Agreement with the Palestinians, target Syria and Iraq, and redesign the Middle East.
A key ingredient in the document, and one central to current administration thinking, is that since terrorism is state-supported, the war on terrorism can be won by changing regimes. Hence, to defeat Hezbollah, you have to overthrow Syria and Iran.
Brown University's Beeman argues that Iran has no direct control over Hezbollah. While Iran does provide the organization some $200 million a year, that money “makes up a fraction of Hezbollah's operating budget.” The major source of the group's funding is the “sakat,” or the tithe required of all Muslims.
Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman, writing in Foreign Affairs, says that Iran “lacks the means to force significant change in the [Hezbollah] movement and its goals. It [Iran] 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, to simply sever ties with Tehran's leadership.”
If a wider war is to be avoided, argues Christopher Layne of the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, the United States “will have to engage in direct diplomacy with Syria and Iran—both of which have important stakes in the outcome of security issues in the Middle East, including those involving Israel's relations with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Recently a group of 21 former generals, admirals, ambassadors, and high ranking security advisers proposed exactly that, calling on the Bush administration to “engage immediately in direct talks with the government of Iran without preconditions.” The group warned that “an attack on Iran would have disastrous consequences for security in the region and U.S. forces in Iraq. It would inflame hatred and violence in the Middle East and among Muslims everywhere.”
Just as Middle East illusions have done for almost a millennium.
Conn Hallinan is an analyst for FPIF.
Published by Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), a joint project of the International Relations Center (IRC, online at www.irc-online.org) and the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS, online at www.ips-dc.org). ©Creative Commons - some rights reserved.
Conn Hallinan, "The Persistence of Illusion" (Silver City, NM and Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, August 30, 2006).
Monday, August 21, 2006
Cheney Gets Flawed Neocon Briefings on Iran
By Larisa Alexandrovna, Raw Story
Posted on August 19, 2006, Printed on August 21, 2006
The Bush administration continues to bypass standard intelligence channels and use what some believe to be propaganda tactics to create a compelling case for war with Iran, US foreign experts and former US intelligence officials have said.
One former senior intelligence official is particularly concerned by private briefings that Vice President Dick Cheney is getting from former Office of Special Plans (OSP) Director, Abram Shulsky.
"Vice President Cheney is relying on personal briefings from Shulsky for current intelligence on Iran," said this intelligence official.
Shulsky, a leading Neoconservative and member of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), headed the shadowy and secretive Department of Defense's OSP in the lead-up to the Iraq war -- helping to locate intelligence that would support the Bush administration's case for war with Iraq.
In an earlier report by Raw Story on an OSP spin-off dubbed the Iranian Directorate (ID), Lt. Col. Barry E. Venable -- a spokesman for the Pentagon -- confirmed that Shulsky was consulting for this new initiative as well.
"Mr. Shulsky continues in his position as Senior Advisor to the USD, focusing on Mid-East regional issues and the [global war on terror]," stated Venable.
Several foreign policy experts, who wish to remain anonymous, have expressed serious concern that much like the OSP, the ID is manipulating, cherry picking, and perhaps even -- as some suspect -- cooking intelligence to lead the U.S. into another conflict, this time with Iran.
"Cheney distrusts the information being disseminated by CIA on Iran," said one former senior intelligence official. "The reports assembled by the Iranian Directorate at the Pentagon differ significantly from the analysis produced by the Intelligence Community. The Pentagon Iranian Directorate relies on thin and unsupported reporting from foreign sources."
In the build-up to the Iraq war, Cheney relied on intelligence almost exclusively from the OSP, which leveled allegations that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. This was later debunked, but no OSP or DOD officials were held accountable for what many believe was a "deliberate effort" to mislead the nation into war.
New uranium allegations
Adding to the similarities between the pre-war build up to Iraq, new allegations of Uranium transactions began aggressively circulating earlier this month. For example, in an August 6th Sunday Times of London article entitled "Iran's plot to mine uranium in Africa," Iran is alleged to have purchased Uranium from the Democratic Republic of Congo:
A United Nations report, dated July 18, said there was 'no doubt' that a huge shipment of smuggled uranium 238, uncovered by customs officials in Tanzania, was transported from the Lubumbashi mines in the Congo.
Tanzanian customs officials told The Sunday Times it was destined for the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, and was stopped on October 22 last year during a routine check.
The UN report, however, does not mention Iran. It is only the Tanzanian official who does.
The article also quotes the Tanzanian official on his description of the uranium amounts found in each container and how it was located.
This one was very radioactive. When we opened the container it was full of drums of coltan. Each drum contains about 50kg of ore. When the first and second rows were removed, the ones after that were found to be drums of uranium.
Experts familiar with both African mining and atomic energy have expressed serious concern about these allegations, which have been circulating for some time.
According to a source close to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the story is "highly unlikely" and "not well researched."
This source, who wished to remain anonymous given the nature of the subject, explained that the main concern in the Congolese mines is environmental waste and how it affects workers and villages near the areas where the mining is done.
A former senior US official with experience in the region also finds the story improbable, in this case regarding the Tanzanian interception of a Congo- to- Iran based shipment and the amount transferred.
"My understanding is that the Congolese mines were closed years ago and that any mining now is purely artisanal," said this official.
"[It] would take a lot of labor to produce the volume of uranium they are talking about. The reduction ratio of rock to ore is roughly one hundred to one in the Niger mines. I can't imagine the vein is any richer in the Congo." Still other experts took issue with the description of the uranium and its suggested purpose, including the sentiment that u-238 is "highly radioactive."
Steven Aftergood, senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), an organization that was formed in 1945 by atomic scientists from the Manhattan Project, is doubtful. "U-238 is one of the isotopic forms of uranium. Another isotopic form, [for example], U-235, is used in fission bombs," explained Aftergood.
"U-238 is not highly radioactive. On the contrary, it decays very slowly. It has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. That means that a given quantity of u-238 would radioactively decay by 50% in 4.5 billion years. So you could hold it in your hand without any adverse effect. On the other hand, it is a toxic metal, and you wouldn't want to inhale or ingest uranium dust if you could avoid it."
But the stories of Iran attempting to purchase uranium from abroad leave many experts highly concerned.
One official close to the United Nations Security Council explained that Iran has its own mines, making any allegations of imported uranium from abroad highly questionable.
"Why would Iran import U-238 when it mines it itself?" The official asked. "This makes no sense whatsoever."
Several sources suggested that the Iranian Directorate, as did its predecessor -- the OSP, may be cherry picking, manipulating, and even planting intelligence abroad that would support a case against Iran in the minds of the public.
Expressing great frustration, one former high ranking intelligence officer said "it is all the Neocons." Asked about the allegations of the uranium transaction from Congo-to-Iran, this source remarked: "Total bullshit."
Wendy Morigi, spokeswoman for U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Vice-Chairman Jay Rockefeller, would not confirm or deny that the committee had received any information regarding the Iran uranium purchase. "We can't comment on what briefings the committee has received," Morigi stated in an email response.
Morigi did, however, explain that as with any sensitive information, "Generally speaking, it's safe to assume that the committee closely follows everything related to Iran's nuclear program."
© 2006 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/40539/
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
William O. Beeman
The conflict in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah had hardly begun when the Bush administration and its neoconservative supporters began blaming Iran for the conflagration. On July 25, Henry Crumpton, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, told a reporter that Iran is “clearly directing a lot of Hezbollah actions. Hezbollah asks their permission to do things, especially if it has broader international implications.” Meanwhile, in the July 24 Weekly Standard, William Kristol called Hezbollah’s fighting an “act of Iranian aggression” and suggested “we might consider countering [it] … with a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities.”
However, giving Iran another tongue lashing, or worse, deciding to attack it, will do nothing to stop the violence in the region. Not only is there no evidence that Iran had a role in instigating this round of violence, the possibility itself is unlikely.
Iran’s control over Hezbollah has been steadily declining since approximately 1996, during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami. Money does continue to come “from Iran” to support Hezbollah, but not the Iranian government. Instead, it’s private religious foundations that direct the bulk of support, primarily to Hezbollah’s charitable activities. Nor are the amounts crucial to Hezbollah’s survival; even the high estimate frequently cited in the press—$200 million per annum—is a fraction of Hezbollah’s operating funds. However, the most important reason for not targeting Iran for the continued fighting in Lebanon is that this conflict is antithetical to Iran’s interests.
Neoconservatives clearly have another agenda in attacking Iran besides stopping Hezbollah. By blaming Iran for this latest flare-up, neoconservatives are following their decade-long program to encourage a military attack against the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s support for Hezbollah
The broad assertion that Iran supports Hezbollah is verifiable, but it is important to understand what the nature of this support is, and the extent to which Iran is able to influence the actions of this Shi’ite Lebanese group.
Since 90 percent of Iran’s population is Shi’ite, its citizens had an undeniable interest in the fate of its co-religionists in Lebanon following the Revolution of 1978-79. Like Iranians, the Lebanese Shi’ite community was under oppression both from Sunnis and Maronites. Moreover, Palestinian refugees, settled in Lebanon without consultation with the Shi’ite community, served as a drain on weak local economic resources and drew fire from Israel. The Shi’ites felt helpless and frustrated. The successful revolution in Iran was enormously inspirational to them. While the Iranian central government was weak and scattered after the Revolution, semi-independent charitable organizations, called bonyad (literally, “foundation”) sponsored by individual Shi’ite clerics began to help the fledgling Hezbollah organization establish itself as a defense force to protect the Shi’ite community. This was simply not state support. Given the semi-independent corporate nature of Shi’ite clerics, especially in the early days of Iran’s revolution, when internal power struggles were endemic, there was little the Khomeini government could do to curtail these operations.
Now, after nearly two decades, this ad hoc export of Iranian revolutionary ideology may have succeeded too well. Whereas today the bulk of the Iranian population has at least some doubts about their government, Hezbollah maintains a stronger commitment to the symbolic legacy of the Iranian Revolution than Iranians, according to Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman. In a 2003 Foreign Affairs article, Byman pointed out that, “[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, 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.
Hezbollah has achieved this independence by becoming as much a social welfare and political organization as a militant resistance organization. In a 2004 speech, Dwight J. Simpson, a professor of international relations at San Francisco State University, reported that it had “12 elected parliamentary members…[and] many Hezbollah members hold elected positions within local governments.” At that time, the group had already built five hospitals and was building more. It operated 25 primarily secular schools, and provided subsidies to shopkeepers.
The source for their money, Simpson reported, is zakat—the charitable “tithe” required of all Muslims. The Shi’ites, having seen their co-religionists in Iraq succeed in initial elections there in 2005, had hopes that they too would assume the power in Lebanon that accorded with their status as the nation’s largest community, approximately 40 percent of the population. The growth of Hezbollah’s charitable operations increased non-state-level financial support for the organization not only from Iran, but from the rest of the Shi’ite world, since formalized charity is a religious duty. As this charitable activity increased, Hezbollah was on the road to ceasing its activities as a terrorist group and gradually assuming the role of a political organization. Even in its current engagement with Israel, its “terrorist” activities have been reframed as national defense, especially as Hezbollah began to use conventional military forces and weapons.
Many of these weapons, it is claimed, have been acquired from Iran over the years, but even this is not fully verified. The rockets used by Hezbollah have been tentatively identified as Katushya rockets, of the form manufactured by Iran, and known as Fajr-3 and Fajr-5. But the United States has not been able to identify that these rockets are absolutely Iranian.
Moreover, although it is certainly possible that branches of Iran’s Islamic guard may be operating in Lebanon without the full knowledge of the central government of Iran, no country has yet been able to verify their presence in the current conflict, and rumors that they have aided in the firing of the rockets have been vehemently denied by Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Given the loose and ambiguous nature of the Iranian government’s control over support for Hezbollah, claims by U.S. officials that Iran has an organized state-level support system for such activities are clearly exaggerated.
Added to all of this is the fact that the Lebanese violence does not serve Iran’s political purposes. The verbal attacks of its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, against Israel would cause it to be targeted if Israel were ever involved in a wider conflict with the Islamic world. Although Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has claimed that Iran instigated this attack to draw attention away from criticism of its nuclear development program, this scenario seems far-fetched. Indeed, Iran’s strategic situation has certainly been worsened by this fighting. Kenneth Katzman, senior Middle East analyst at the Congressional Research Service, recently told Voice of America: “Iran is viewed, widely viewed, as at least complicit in what is going on, supporting Hezbollah. And that is likely to make some of the fence-sitters, I guess Russia and China perhaps, take a dimmer view of Iranian intentions and perhaps be more amenable to U.S. and other arguments that Iran is playing a destabilizing role in the region and needs to be confronted by the [U.N. Security] Council.”
Beyond state support
Why would the United States repeat such unfounded assertions with such incessant regularity as if they were established fact? Aside from their continuity with 27 years of ongoing attacks against Iran, such assertions accord with a longstanding U.S. foreign policy myth that believes terrorism cannot exist without state support. If a state is needed to explain the continued existence of groups like Hezbollah, then Iran is an ideal candidate. Ergo, the connection must exist. Such claims serve to bolster the central, but fallacious, political doctrine for the Bush administration that the Global War on Terrorism really exists.
The alternative is to understand that terrorism is fundamentally community-based. Sub-state groups with grievances that they feel cannot be addressed in any other way resort to terrorism as a way of increasing attention to their plight and pressuring those whom they perceive to be oppressing them. Though they may welcome external financial support, the impetus and motivation for terrorist groups’ actions is not dependent on it. Indeed, the more pressure they are subjected to, the stronger their collective will to resist increases.
When this dynamic is understood, the problems of addressing terrorism also come into focus. Rather than looking for global fantasy structures such as al-Qaeda and their state supporters, the international community needs to employ methods to address the needs of sub-state groups, while simultaneously working to curtail their activities as conditions improve. For the Shi’ites in Lebanon, it may be far too late to employ such a strategy.
William O. Beeman is Professor of Anthropology and Middle East Studies at Brown University. His most recent book is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.
Tuesday, August 01, 2006
Attacking Iran will not Stop the Violence in Lebanon
William O. Beeman
Blaming Iran for the horrific violence between Israel and the Arabs of Lebanon and Palestine is a popular stance in the world today. Although it might make many people feel good to give Iran another tongue lashing, such an exercise will do nothing to stop the violence and destruction going on in the region. Paradoxically, however, Iran could play a role in bringing about peace if it were allowed to do so.
Iran makes a convenient scapegoat. It has no defenders. Americans and Europeans are already furious with Tehran over the development of Iran's nuclear program. The Sunni States in the region--principally Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt are worried about growing Iranian power as Shi'a forces throughout the region grow in influence. The Sunnis are uncomfortable defending the Shi'a community in Lebanon, and are quite happy to have Iran bear blame for the war, even if the reasoning is weak. Meanwhile in the United States, neoconservatives are primed with a decade-long program to attack Iran that they have conveniently grafted onto the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict as a suggested response.
However, both of these positions are mistaken in their analysis and in their strategic goals.
The Sunni States' position is short-sighted and pusillanimous. Perhaps they hope that the Shi'a world as a whole will be weakened through Israel's actions. But there is no magic Israeli bullet that will eliminate the need of the nations in the region to come to peaceful terms with Iran, which grows stronger and more prosperous every day with every American misstep and every increase in the price of oil. Nor can the Sunni states avoid accommodating the significant, growing non-Iranian Shi'a population in the region. Standing silent and allowing the Lebanese Shi'a to be attacked is also bringing about the destruction of the Sunni population in Lebanon--including the "Jewel of the Eastern Mediterranean," the Sunni/Christian city of Beirut, long a financial and tourist center for the Sunni Arab community. Standing on the sidelines in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict also effectively ignores the backlash that is being felt by the Palestinians and their supporters as Israel lashes out at Hamas.
The neoconservative position is far more complex, and potentially more dangerous. The neoconservatives purposely ignore the fact that their basic thesis is wrong. Hamas and Hezbollah are not puppets. They have control of their own actions and destinies. More importantly, the neoconservative proposed action--attacking Iran militarily--is impossible at present; a campaign against Iran is acknowledged by American military strategists to be impractical and potentially ineffective. Finally, even if the United States or Israel could be successful in destroying Iran's government through a military attack, this action would not curtail violence against Israel. More specifically, it would not destroy Hezbollah or Hamas, as the neoconservatives claim.
One can only conclude that the neoconservatives have been calling for Iran's destruction for so long, they can not give up the habit. William Kristol writing in the Weekly Standard and London's Financial Times on July 16 writes: "No Islamic Republic of Iran, no Hezbollah. No Islamic Republic of Iran, no one to prop up the Assad regime in Syria. No Iranian support for Syria . . . little state sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. "The Wall Street Journal Editorial Page has stated flatly: "Keep in mind that Hezbollah is not the indigenous Lebanese "resistance" organization it claims to be, but is a military creature of Tehran." Neoconservative guru Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute writes: "there is a common prime mover, and that is the Iranian mullahcracy, the revolutionary Islamic fascist state that declared war on us 27 years ago and has yet to be held accountable." Finally, Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, picking up these themes announced on July 19 that Hezbollah timed the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, the event which set off the violence, to deflect world attention away from Iran's nuclear development program.
These representative positions sound reasonable in Washington only because they perpetuate the dominant mythology in American foreign policy that State support is the only thing that sustains groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. The glib neoconservative solution: destroy the State supporters, in this case Iran, and the offending groups will be destroyed in turn, sounds great to sound-byte driven legislators who have no knowledge of the Middle Eastern region.
However, with a little reflection, Washington policy makers should be running away from the neoconservatives on this point, since their spiel should sound ominously familiar. It is the precise formula promulgated by a major group of neoconservative advisors, including Richard Pearle, and Douglas Feith to Israeli Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. Their paper, entitled "'A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," called for the overthrow of the governments of Iraq, Iran and Syria as a way to eliminate threats to Israel, on the theory that this would undercut support for groups opposing Israel.
This call for action was repeated by many of the same neoconservative group members, along with William Kristol, Dick Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton and Zalmay Khalilzad under the rubric of the organization, The Project for the New American Century in 1998. This group wrote a recommendation to President Bill Clinton and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich calling again for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, in part to obtain security for Israel. The basic logic in these position papers drove the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Then as now, the idea that regime change in the region will secure Israel's safety is wrong. It is mistaken both in its reasoning and in its understanding of basic facts about Hezbollah and Hamas, their history and their purpose.
Hamas, as some, including Kristol, actually point out, is an emanation of the Muslim brotherhood, now enjoying resurgence in Egypt. Hamas predates the Iranian Revolution, since the pedigree of its parent organization, the Muslim Brotherhood goes back to the 19th Century and the original Islamic Movement led by reformer Jamal ed-Din al-Afghani, designed to counter European powers and the Middle Eastern rulers who collaborated with them to rob the people of the region of their patrimony.
Iran has no control at all over Hamas' actions or its political agenda. The closest Iran comes to actually influencing Hamas is financial support provided based on a general open appeal from Hamas leader Khaled Mesha'al after Hamas came to power in Palestine in a democratic election, and was subsequently isolated by Israel and the United States.
Hezbollah would never have existed if the French had not created a state where the plurality of Shi'a Muslims would be ruled by minority confessional groups in their own nation--groups that had no interest in protecting the Shi'a as they were attacked by Israel throughout the late 20th Century.
Iran was instrumental in the birth of Hezbollah in the early 1980's when it was the only defense available for the Shi'a community. However, today, though Hezbollah uses Iranian arms (Iran in fact sells to many nations), and Iran has communication with Hezbollah, every expert on Hezbollah today agrees that Iran has had no effective control over Hezbollah's actions for several years--especially since Hezbollah has become largely a political and charitable organization. As former CIA analyst and now Georgetown University professor Daniel Byman wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2003, 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, both Hamas and Hezbollah have their own history, their own reasons for existing, and their own agendas regarding Israel and the West. The idea that they are empty vessels waiting to be filled with an Iranian agenda is absurd in the extreme. Even if Iran were leveled, like Carthage in Roman times, both Hamas and Hezbollah would continue their struggle against Israel, and the Shi'a world, energized by the outrages perpetrated against it, would continue to grow in strength and defiance.
It is better by far to embrace Iran as part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Many Westerners, noting the hostile rhetoric against Israel emanating from Iran may find it hard to believe that Iran could ever play a positive role in a conflict of this sort. However, this attitude is part of the problem. Iran talks the way it does in great part to retaliate against the United States for its actions against Iran. The fact that the United States has not yet found a way to actually talk to Iran exacerbates this situation, promoting even more Iranian hostility.
Iran craves the respect of the international community more than any other commodity one might offer, though Western observers will find their methods for obtaining that respect counter productive. Nevertheless, Iran models its macho posturing on those who confront it-primarily the United States. Iran relishes the idea that it might be offered a respectful position as a peacemaker. In practical terms, the Islamic Republic may not directly influence the actions of Hezbollah and Hamas, but they offer a way to talk to the two groups.
Iran has been willing to serve as mediator in the past in the region, notably in working with Armenia and Azerbaijan, and has garnered bona fides for its efforts. Moreover, Iran has hinted in the recent past that it would drop its hostile posture toward Israel if relations with the United States were to improve. Many Middle Eastern problems will be solved once the United States decides to get serious about dealing with Iran, as myriad foreign policy advisors, including former National Security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinsky and the Council on Foreign Relations have recommended. Vilifying Iran is not doing anyone any good, but asking them for a little help might do a great deal to bring peace to the region.
William O. Beeman is Professor of Anthropology and Middle East Studies at Brown University. He has lived and worked in the Middle East for more than thirty years. His most recent book is The "Great Satan" vs. the "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other.
William O. Beeman
Professor, Anthropology; and Theatre, Speech and Dance
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Tel: (401) 863-3251
Academic Papers and Vita: http://www.williambeeman.com
Blog and current Op-ed pieces--Culture and International Affairs http://www.wbeeman.com
(2004-2005 Visiting Professor, Cultural and Social Anthropology,
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305)
My latest book: The "Great Satan" vs. The "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. (Praeger/Greenwood).
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