Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Attacking Iran Will Not Stop the Violence in Lebanon--William O. Beeman

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 Brzezinski 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.