Iran – Instigator or Bystander?
Tehran is more than 900 miles from the scene of the fight, but the Iranian government stands at the heart of the Hezbollah-Israeli war, according to some international online commentators.
With Secretary Condoleezza Rice visiting the region for the first time since fighting between Hezbollah militants and Israeli forces erupted July 12, the role of Iran, patron and supporter of Hezbollah, is a key part of diplomatic efforts to arrange a cease-fire.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on Monday said he would press for “a truce and establishment of a buffer force” in southern Lebanon, adding that he expected Syria and Iran to help.
Rice traveled to Jerusalem where she met with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni late Monday in talks that addressed Iran’s involvement, according to the Jerusalem Post.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s representative in Iran vowed that the group’s military campaign will leave “no place safe” for Israelis.
Whether Iran is instigator or target of the war now entering its third week is much disputed. The Israeli and American view that Iran is mainly responsible for Hezbollah’s attacks runs counter to the common view in the Iranian and Arab news sites that the Islamic Republic supports but does not control the Shiite militia of Lebanon.
Hezbollah was founded in 1982 by Shiites angered by Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon and dissatisifed with Amal, the traditional political party of Lebanese Shiites. The new party was assisted by religious Iranians interested in advancing the cause of a Shiite revolution as preached by Ayatollah Khomeini. They also received help from secular Syria, which was looking for allies in Lebanon. What began as a military organization evolved into a political party, a social welfare network and a militia – a state within a state.
In Israel, Hezbollah is often seen as an instrument of Iran’s foreign policy. Elsewhere, Hezbollah is seen as an ally of the Islamic Republic with its own agenda.
“This is a regional war,” says Dore Gold, former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations. “Iran is seeking to dominate Iraq, particularly its southern Shia areas – the provinces where British troops are deployed – and hopes to encircle both Israel and the Sunni heartland of the Arab world… There is no question that Iran’s main aim is to dominate the oil-producing areas by agitating the Shia populations of Kuwait, Bahrain, and the eastern provinces of Saudi Arabia.”
Iran hosted a conference of representatives of Hezbollah, Hamas and several Palestinian militant organizations in April, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. “Tehran has never tried to hide its support for these groups, which it views as legitimate resistance movements.” Tehran is also encouraging volunteers to join the fight in Lebanon, reports RFE/RL.
“Hezbollah had its own reasons for attacking Israel,” former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told aljazeera.net, "but Syrian and Iranian interests were being served as well, otherwise they would’ve intervened to stop their client organisation.
One Iranian commentator welcomed the charge. Israel’s supporters “are right to see Iran as the source of all the developments in the region,” wrote Mohammad Imani in the Keyhan, a conservative daily in Tehran.
But the BBC says Iran’s role is “murky.”
Anthony Cordesman, a senior analyst at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the BBC it was “unrealistic to think that Iran somehow controls Hezbollah, that Syria doesn’t need to be considered, that Hezbollah has no decision-making authority or capability on its own.” In a paper for CSIS, Cordesman says there “no evidence” that Iran dominates Hezbollah.
That view is shared both inside and outside of Iran.
“It is misleading to say that Iran and Syria are carrying this out,” Former Iranian president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said of Hezbollah’s fight against the Jewish state. “These are careless statements.”
“Despite the belligerent talk, Iran experts in the United States believe that Tehran is posturing, seeking to gain maximum geopolitical advantage while wanting to avoid a fight with Israel - at least for now,” says a writer for Eurasianet, a news and commentary site.
Iran’s strategy, says Trista Parsi, a Middle East specialist at the Johns Hopkins University, “is to continuously defy the U.S. but stop short of trapping itself in a military confrontation it knows it cannot win.”
“While Ahmadinejad huffs and puffs – he has warned Israel that it ‘will face a crushing response’ if it attacks Syria, and accused Arab leaders who have refused to cheer on Hezbollah of being ‘complicit in the Zionist regime’s barbarism’ – there is little evidence showing an active Iranian role in the fighting,” Parsi writes.
“This is rhetoric, not actual policy,” Mohammad Atrianfar, editor of the reformist Iranian newspaper Shargh, told Time Magazine’s Azadeh Moaveni.
Editors of Le Monde, the French daily, say Iran is taking advantage of the war to advance its nuclear diplomacy.
"The war in Lebanon began at a time when the major powers, frustrated at having failed to secure a response from Tehran to their diplomatic offer, had announced their intention of resuming the Security Council talks on what sanctions could be imposed on Tehran. The evidence is lacking to establish a cause-and-effect link. What is obvious, however, is that, on the strength of its feeling of impunity and power granted to it by the revival of Shiism, Tehran has decided to capitalize on the conflict in the Near East. "