Lebanon Senses Change in Tehran
With Khomeini gone, Iran's new leaders drop goal of making Lebanon an Islamic state. MIDEAST MODERATION
BEIRUT — LEBANON'S Shiite Muslims are feeling the winds of change blowing from Iran. Recent Lebanese visitors to Tehran, and Lebanese Shiites involved in contacts elsewhere with Iranian leaders, say that Iran's new leaders are set on a more moderate course than that of the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
Tehran has turned away from any idea of trying to set up an Islamic state in Lebanon. It has pledged support for a democratic political system ensuring equality and coexistence between the country's numerous Muslim and Christian sects.
Although still deeply involved in Lebanon, Iran is no longer confining its attentions and largesse to Hizbullah and other fundamentalist groups established as a vehicle for promoting an Iranian-style Islamic revolution.
Tehran has begun opening up relationships across a spectrum of Lebanese Muslim and left-wing factions. These include Amal, the mainstream Shiite movement which is a rival of Hizbullah for leadership of the million-strong Shiite community.
While reiterating support for continued action against Israel, Iran has renewed its backing for an agreement under which Amal is in charge of security in south Lebanon. Amal is committed to actions aimed at pressuring the Israelis out of the ``security zone'' Israel has established along the border inside Lebanon. It does not want to carry the battle into Israel itself, a goal until now espoused by Hizbullah.
Some Shiite sources expect Hizbullah's influence to be diminished as a result of Iran's new policies and a new cohesion perceived within the Iranian leadership. However, this may be partly offset by a more developed relationship between Syria and the Islamic radicals in Lebanon.
It is also widely believed that the new Iranian policies will improve prospects for the 15 or so Western hostages - including nine Americans - held captive in Lebanon by pro-Tehran groups.
Some Shiites believe such releases may begin soon after the Iranian presidential election on Friday. Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a relative moderate, is expected to win easily. One well-placed Shiite source believed the issue of the hostages would be resolved ``automatically'' as Iran moved along its new path. But, he added, ``With the Lebanese dying every day, the question of the hostages is not being actively discussed at the moment.''
Some Shiite sources believe that the hostages are now ``worthless'' to their captors, and they speculate that hostage releases could begin shortly after the election.
Other Shiites say it could take a year for the effect of changes in Iran to be fully felt. Western diplomats in Beirut also caution that, even if it does seek better relations with Western countries, Iran is still likely to use the hostages as bargaining chips in that process.
Recent Lebanese visitors to Tehran came away with the impression that Iran's new leaders are in harmony, and that hard-line figures - whose influence has been much felt in Lebanon - have been largely eclipsed.
One in particular is Interior Minister Ali Akbar Mohtashemi. As ambassador to Damascus in the early 1980s, he was instrumental in establishing Hizbullah and other radical cells in Lebanon, and continued to work directly with them after his return to Tehran.
Amal leader Nabih Berri frequently complained that the woes afflicting Lebanon's Shiite community stemmed from conflict between the Iranian Foreign Ministry - headed by Ali Akbar Velayati - and Mr. Mohtashemi's Interior Ministry.
But visitors to Tehran say that Mohtashemi played no part in the many meetings last week with visiting Lebanese leaders and officials invited to take part in the 40th-day commemoration of Ayatollah Khomeini's death. Mohtashemi did not even receive his counterpart, Abdullah Rasi, from the Syrian-backed West Beirut government.
``Mohtashemi is completely out of it,'' said a senior Lebanese source just back from Tehran. ``He is not expected to have a role in future policy, and it will be surprising if he is included in the new government after the presidential elections'' on Friday.
Among the visitors to Tehran was Mr. Berri. It was his first visit, and he spent more than two weeks in talks with senior Iranian figures. The very fact that his trip took place at all was seen in Shiite circles as ample confirmation of Tehran's new policies and directions.
``There is a new, changed situation in Iran, and it must not be met with rejection,'' said one of the Lebanese leaders who visited Tehran. ``Iran is moving toward opening up to all countries. It is in the interest of the big powers, especially the US, to take advantage of this new opening now, whether in terms of general politics, or with regard to the hostages.''
While Iran may have given up trying to promote Islamic revolution in Lebanon, that does not mean its role there is finished.
In fact, the series of meetings with the leaders of more than a dozen Lebanese factions was part of a move by Iran's ally Syria to involve the Iranians more deeply in Lebanon, according to Lebanese politicians and Western diplomats.
The aim, these sources say, is mainly to counterbalance growing Iraqi involvement with the hard-line Christians, led by Gen. Michel Aoun. To that end, Syria has encouraged both its own and Iran's allies in Lebanon to form a common front against General Aoun and his Iraqi backers.
Syria, which has 40,000 or so troops in Lebanon, controls about 70 percent of the country. Aoun's pledge in April to expel the Syrians has ignited the worst violence since the start of Lebanon's civil war, now in its 15th year.