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.
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.
In the current Franco-Iranian dispute, Hizbullah has organized anti-French demonstrations in Baalbek, Lebanon, and Islamic Jihad - a name used by some Hizbullah elements - has threatened to kill two French hostages.
Hizbullah is tied to Tehran by ideology, personal loyalty, and money. Specialists describe Hizbullah as a clandestine social movement whose goal is to build a theocratic Islamic regime in Lebanon mirroring the Khomeini regime in Iran. Hizbullah is ridden with clan, geographic, and personal rivalries, as is the whole Lebanese Shiite community, analysts say, but Iran provides the example and wherewithal ``that holds it together.''
Iran was essential in Hizbullah's emergence on the chaotic Lebanese scene after Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The lack of a functioning national government in Lebanon gave Iran a unique opportunity to mobilize the thousands of dispossessed and disillusioned Shiites.
Iran dispatched several hundred Revolutionary Guards to Baalbek, now Hizbullah's stronghold in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon. The Iranian garrison quickly began providing military training and advice as well as ideological instruction and social services. The response among the traditionally deprived Shiite community was enthusiastic. The terrorism response was deadly.
Vitally important is the flow of money and arms from Tehran to Hizbullah elements, which is routed through the airport in Damascus, Syria. This allows Hizbullah to pay its fighters a regular salary and to keep them ready for action. Iran is also Hizbullah's ``ultimate shield'' against Syria, US analysts say.
Experts believe Syria would like to rein in Hizbullah, but Damascus needs Iranian economic aid and shares Tehran's enmity toward Iraq. US sources say Damascus was outraged by the June abduction of former ABC journalist Charles Glass by Hizbullah ``right under its nose,'' but Iran sanctioned the move because it serves Tehran's desire to pressure the US. Damascus is reportedly freezing the arms flow to Hizbullah as a result.
Decisionmaking in Hizbullah is done by the secret Council of Lebanon made up of clerics, many of whom are also military chiefs. Iran's ambassador to Damascus as well as the commander of the Revolutionary Guard garrison in Baalbek have regular input in the process, US sources say. Iran's current interior minister played a major role in Hizbullah's birth as Iran's then-ambassador in Damascus and remains influential, these sources assert.
A key actor in all hostage matters is Imad Mughnyah, chief of Hizbullah's security section. One US official says Mr. Mughnyah's group is the ``best'' at terror in Hizbullah. He is regarded as Hizbullah's jailer and by some as Iran's designated instrument for terrorist actions. Mughnyah's group probably holds most of the 20-plus Western hostages in Lebanon. ``Hostages seem to gravitate to Mughnyah'' even if someone else kidnaps them, one US offical explains.
Mughnyah is reportedly very close to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and is said to have ties to Ahmad Khomeini, the son of the Iranian leader.
Profile of Hizbullah
Although little about Hizbullah is known with certainty, the following portrait is derived from Western intelligence and news sources.
Name: ``Party of God.''
Composition: It is a loose confederation of pro-Iranian Shiite Muslim factions in Lebanon that broke away from Amal, the mainstream Lebanese Shiite group, after Israel's 1982 invasion. Islamic Jihad is a name believed to be used by elements of Hizbullah.
Base: Baalbek, Lebanon.
Leaders: Sheikh (Sayyid) Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah is the preeminent Shiite cleric in Lebanon and the spiritual leader of Hizbullah. The decision-making body is a secret board called the Council of Lebanon, comprised of a number of sheikhs.
Actions: Hizbullah elements are believed to be responsible for car bombings of two US Embassy facilities in Beirut in 1983-84 and for 1984 attacks on the US Marine and French military barracks there. Hizbullah elements also masterminded the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 in 1985 and played key roles in 1983 bombings in Kuwait and 1986 bombings in Paris.