After Iran threats, West eyes Hizbullah. Tehran is said to fund and call major terrorist shots for Lebanese radicals
With new Iranian threats having been made against the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia, US officials and analysts are casting a wary eye at Hizbullah, a pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim group in Lebanon. These sources see Hizbullah as Iran's main overseas terrorist weapon and warn that the next Iranian move against its perceived enemies could come by way of this radical Shiite movement.Skip to next paragraph
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US analysts suspect Hizbullah of bombing three Saudi Arabian government buildings in Beirut early this week.
Iran's influence in Hizbullah has always been clear, but Western analysts have debated how much actual control Tehran exerts. Well-placed US officials and analysts now conclude that Iran calls the shots on most major Hizbullah terrorist actions and uses them as a calculated weapon in achieving Iran's ends.
These officials explain that Iran is profiting from the political, social, and economic disruption in Lebanon to build a dedicated following willing to die for the Islamic revolution. Hizbullah, which means Party of God, is the channel for this. Its promise of an Islamic regime has mobilized many of Lebanon's traditionally downtrodden Shiites, who view the movement as a way to social, political, and economic change.
Hizbullah's terrorist stock in trade is hostage-taking, assassination, and bombings in Lebanon, sources explain. Elements in this Lebanese movement have also carried out terrorist actions elsewhere, including in Western Europe. Thus, the threat from this group is significant, US sources say.
US specialists say that not all of Hizbullah is engaged in terrorism. Many members view it as a means to social justice. But others see terrorism as a legitimate weapon. Those who engage in terrorism use cover names such as Islamic Jihad (holy war) or the Revolutionary Justice Organization. They also have ties to other Middle Eastern terrorist groups and have cooperated with them in certain operations. Tehran, however, remains Hizbullah's main benefactor and guide.
One official says that ``Hizbullah is not running amok,'' though it might look that way from events in Lebanon. Rather, it is serving as an ``integral element'' of Iranian policy. US analysts say Tehran is just leading Western governments down the garden path when it says its influence with the hostage holders in Lebanon is quite limited.
Informed US officials and analysts assert, for example, that Iran could order hostages to be taken or released by the main Hizbullah elements. They contend that Iran has given the OK for most Western hostages released in Lebanon. It has also blocked potential releases, they say.
Iran does not control every move by Hizbullah, nor is its influence equally strong with every group within that movement or on every issue, sources say. But Tehran gives the orders on hostages and can effectively veto or ratify a move after the fact, these officials conclude, by judicious use of its leverage.
Tehran uses some uncoordinated acts by Hizbullah as a smoke screen for its own involvement, one analyst says. He points to the kidnapping of Anglican envoy Terry Waite on Jan. 20 as an example of the sort of ad hoc action by elements of Hizbullah that helps to cover Iran's role.
These officials point to the range of terrorist pressures on France in the last 18 months as a clear example of Iran's use of Hizbullah for its own ends. Hizbullah cover groups consistently released statements and photos of French hostages to the press in Paris. Hizbullah units attacked French United Nations peace-keeping forces in Lebanon and one of its operatives assassinated the French military attach'e in Beirut. Finally, Hizbullah members actively participated in terrorist bombings in Paris, these officials say.
In all of these actions, analysts note, the main Hizbullah demands were for moves that would directly aid Iran. These US analysts argue that Iran's goal was to create pressure on Paris to deal with Tehran as the only way to solve its problems.