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In Mideast, cease-fire is a start

The cease-fire is set to take effect at 8 a.m. Monday, though fighting continued Sunday between Israel and Hizbullah.

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One alleged Hizbullah fighter who was captured has been shown on Israeli television during questioning, claiming to have received training in Iran. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz on Sunday reported that some dead fighters had tattoos that "suggest they belong" to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. But tattoos are rare in Iran, and are officially banned in cases such as sports teams. The report quoted Israeli military sources claiming that "several dozen" Guards had been sent by Iran to fight alongside Hizbullah.

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Bush on Saturday said the UN resolution is designed to "put an end to Iran and Syria's efforts to hold the Lebanese people hostage to their own extremist agenda."

But that aim has a limited following here, where Lebanese deaths from Israeli bombardment Sunday topped 880 – some 22 times the Israeli toll of 40 civilians – and unity behind Hizbullah's resistance has surged. Analysts say the significance of Iran's symbiotic ties with Hizbullah are often overstated.

"It's a very strong, very solid organic relationship – similar to the relationship between Israel and the US," says Saad-Ghorayeb. In the year that Mr. Ahmadinejad has been president of Iran, those ties have consolidated. But there are limits.

"Iran does not dictate military strategy or policy to Hizbullah, as is commonly seen in the West," says Saad-Ghorayeb. "For example, the US supports Israel, [but] no one says that the US tells Israel what to do. It's the same for Hizbullah and Iran."

Hizbullah maintains closest ties to Iran's clerical establishment, and looks to Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the Shiite group's spiritual reference, or marja. It believes in the concept of velayat e-faqih, rule by a supreme jurisprudent as a pillar of Iran's Islamic regime. Nasrallah is Ayatollah Khamenei's personal representative to Lebanon – a rare and telling link.

But as Israeli officials speak of changing the "rules of the game" in Lebanon, Iran has matched the expansive US and Israeli rhetoric with its own. During the conflict, arch-conservative President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the problem could be "solved" if Israel ceased to exist.

And Mr. Khamenei last Tuesday spoke in his stark terms about the regional face-off.

Hizbullah is fighting the "enemies of Islam," by challenging "that same merciless and vicious Zionist army which was once known as invincible," Khamenei said.

"Today, it has been killing itself for one month, with all its might and using American weapons and American military assistance, and it is constantly being slapped in the mouth by a pious, struggling group that believes in nothing but God and His nation," he said.

Days before the conflict, he warned that the US would receive a "hard slap and a destructive punch" for supporting Israel.

At stake for Lebanon is its continuing role as a proxy regional battlefield, the same dynamic that tore the country apart with local militias and their foreign backers during the 1975-1990 civil war.

"The Iranians have invested more than 22 years and almost $6 billion in Hizbullah, and for that Hizbullah gives them the opportunity to extend their borders to have a common border with Israel," says Nizar Abdel-Kader, a former Lebanese general who has written a book on Iran's nuclear issue.

"Hizbullah was the most precious military asset that Iran possessed to respond to any American or Israeli attack on their nuclear facilities," says General Abdel-Kader, noting this assessment is widely held in Israel and the West. "I think it has its own logic."

But some Lebanese chafe at the Iranian role and the fact that posters of top Iranian clerics – including Khamenei and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, father of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution – have for decades adorned Hizbullah strongholds in Beirut's southern suburbs and south Lebanon.

"Some people think it's their war of liberation and resistance," says another former Lebanese general, who asked not to be named. "But I think most Lebanese see this not as their war, but as Iran and Israel's war. Nasrallah and Iran are always blaming the US."

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