Signs grow of Iranian disenchantment with Hizbullah

Iran seems willing to sacrifice the influence in Beirut of its Lebanese proxy, Hizbullah, rather than see relations with Syria suffer. Iranian government sources and other diplomats indicate that this is not only a question of priorities, but evidence of growing disenchantment in Tehran with the Iranian-created and funded radical group. Iran has been working to end the fighting that has raged since May 6 between Hizbullah (Party of God) and the pro-Syrian Amal militia. In the wake of several collapsed cease-fires and deployment of Syrian troops on the edge of Beirut's southern suburbs last weekend, Iran has also tried to prevent a Syria-Hizbullah clash or at least reach an understanding with Damascus that such a clash should not affect Syrian-Iranian relations.

Iranian President Ali Khamenei and Syrian President Hafez Assad negotiated May 11 a broad agreement on their joint influence in Lebanon, according to an aide to Iran's Prime Minister Mir Hossein Musavi. Under its terms, he says, both Shiite militias would soon be disbanded, and their fighters redeployed to south Lebanon to face Israel and its proxy, the South Lebanon Army. Nabih Berri, Amal's leader, was quoted on Lebanese radio Monday as saying he will disband his militia.

Ali Mohammad Besharati, Iran's deputy minister of foreign affairs, arrived in Beirut Tuesday ``to implement the agreement worked out by Presidents Khamenei and Assad,'' an aide to Mr. Besharati said.

Both Besharati and Hossein Sheikholeslam, another deputy foreign minister, held talks Monday in Damascus with Syria's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Farouq al-Shara. According to the official Islamic Republic News Agency, the talks were aimed at ``strengthening the Iran-Syria strategic alliance.''

The Iranian presence in Lebanon was pioneered in January 1980 by the son of Ayatollah Montazeri (Ayatollah Khomeini's heir apparent). The Iranian government has spent huge sums to build up Hizbullah.

The first signs of tension between Tehran and its Lebanese proxy came in 1986, with the arrest and the execution of Mehdi Hashemi, who had been responsible for contacts between Hizbullah and the Iranian government.

The disillusion is by no means universal in Tehran, where some powerful clerics still support Hizbullah. But the Cabinet, according to Iranian sources, is unanimous in viewing the group with growing disfavor, though the reasons offered by various observers differ.

European diplomats contacted in Tehran said Iranian leaders are likely to wash their hands of the fighting in Beirut because they can't afford to lose Syria's support in their war against Iraq.

``Syria remains the only Arab country supporting Iran. This alliance helps Iran deny the Iran-Iraq war is a fight between the Arabs and the Persians and portray it as a fight against imperialism,'' a European ambassador says.

Arab diplomats in Brussels and Paris point to a series of military setbacks Iran has suffered over the past weeks. Now on the defensive, they argue, Iran can't continue to support Hizbullah.

``The Syrians and their Lebanese allies were quick to realize that for them it is now possible to get rid of, at low diplomatic cost, Iran's influence in Beirut,'' an Arab League ambassador comments.

Iranian exiles who carefully monitor their country's political life say that Iranian support to Hizbullah has been dwindling since January. According to those exiles, Iranian intelligence services in Beirut have over the past year reported that certain groups within Hizbullah were getting increasingly out of control.

An Iranian journalist, recently interviewed in Tehran, agrees. ``The Islamic Jihad, which is an offshoot of the Hizbullah, has become a burden for us. We don't know how to deal with those people. They are our spiritual brothers, but we're aware that they're often irresponsible,'' he says. ``One major problem is that they enjoy the staunch support of part of the clergy here.''

An Iranian diplomat in Europe says, ``The last straw was the hijacking of a Kuwaiti airliner on April 5 by a group linked to the Lebanese Islamic Jihad. This ruined all the efforts we'd been making for months to improve our image abroad.''

Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.

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