Arab World: Kings and Pawns

Jerusalem Post- 17/09/2010

The scheduled visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon in the coming weeks represents the latest move in the Iranian leader’s attempt to declare ownership of what he regards as the struggle of the Muslim world against Israel. The much-remarked-on reports in the al-Khaleej newspaper that he may visit the southern border area cannot yet be confirmed. But if this aspect of the visit does take place, it will serve to highlight in bold relief this most central aspect of the regional strategy of Ahmadinejad and those around him.

The visit is also the latest sign that Lebanon as a whole is in the process of being drawn into de facto membership of the Iran-led regional axis. It may herald the launching of a major new initiative to provide arms to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).

The reasons for the centrality of Israel in the strategy of Ahmadinejad and his comrades have been much rehearsed, and are by now familiar.

The Iranians are twofold outsiders in the Arab world – as non-Sunnis and non-Arabs. Yet the regime in Teheran wants to make of itself the hegemonic power of the region. One factor stands to trump the Iranian status as strangers. This is the cause of the Palestinians, which remains the flagship political cause for the Arabs. The Iranians established and groomed Hizbullah precisely to give themselves their own stake in the fight against Israel.

The investment has paid dividends.

The Iranians like to contrast the supposed successes of their own long proxy war against Israel with the proclaimed failures of the diplomatic path. This has a resonance and relevance beyond the arena of Israel. It enables Teheran to claim that it represents the effective, uncompromising wave of the future – in contrast to the ineffectual practices of the Arab states. Teheran currently maintains the two active fronts of the conflict between Israel and Islam (as Iran sees it) – namely, Gaza and south Lebanon. With endless peace talks between the PA and Israel once more under way, it is an opportune moment for the Iranians to remind the world and the region of their opposing strategy of endless war.

But the Ahmadinejad visit may well also have a more immediately practical element. The visit is likely to reaffirm Teheran’s related takeover bid of Lebanon.

Lebanon enjoyed a brief moment of optimism following Syrian withdrawal in 2005. It was hoped that the country would succeed in developing representative institutions and return to the status it once enjoyed as a commercial hub in the Middle East. From the outset, however, this vision was challenged by an alternative, Iran inspired ambition which envisaged Lebanon as a militant front line state locked in endless conflict with Israel.

The Iran-inspired vision now has the upper hand. This is reflecting itself in practical ways. The almost certainly Hizbullah-inspired border incident last month, in which an IDF officer was killed, led to the freezing by the US of $100 million which had been approved for transfer to the Lebanese army. This sum was the latest segment of more than $720 million provided by the US to the army of Lebanon since 2006.

Iran saw an opportunity, and the Iranian ambassador met with the Lebanese chief of staff following the incident, pledging that Iran would cooperate with the Lebanese army in any area that would help the military in performing its national role in defending Lebanon.

It may well be that Ahmadinejad intends to use his visit to announce further practical steps in Iran’s attempt to step in and make itself a major supplier to the LAF.

An additional reason for the visit will be to indulge in some flag-waving and sloganeering to distract attention from current problems. Ahmadinejad has concerns on a variety of fronts.

Sanctions have begun to bite at home, with worse to come. Restrictions on shipping and banking services are reducing Iran’s ability to sell the crude oil that is vital to its economy.

There are reports of divisions between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and more broadly between the clerics who have ruled Iran since 1979 and the clique of militants and Revolutionary Guardsmen represented by Ahmadinejad.

His own difficulties are paralleled by concerns among Iran’s Hizbullah clients as it seeks to deflect attention from possible indictments against movement members for involvement in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Hizbullah’s chosen method in this has been to seek to blame Israel for the evidence against it and seek to portray supporters of the investigation into the murder as enemies of the “resistance” to Israel.

At such a time, it is easy to see why Ahmadinejad, both for his own purposes and to help his regime’s main clients, might feel inclined toward a little saber rattling and refocusing of the conversation on the hated Zionist enemy. Whether he stays in Beirut or ventures further south, one may expect much huffing and puffing about the “victory” of 2006 and presumably enthusiastic reminders of the Iran-financed rebuilding efforts in devastated Maroun a-Ras and Ait a-Shaab.

The bravado will reflect the real strategic gains made by Iran and its clients in Lebanon in recent years, and the centrality Teheran affords the issue of Israel and the struggle against it. It will also, however, serve as a rallying point for the faithful in the face of current tactical uncertainties.

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