From Beirut to Gaza: The Challenge of Islamist Politics— And the Imprint of Iran’s Ascendancy

Two highly volatile situations—different in many important details, but similar in essence—are taking shape on Israel’s northern and southwestern borders. Maddeningly and tragically resistant to rational solutions, they reflect the bid for power by local Islamist totalitarians in Lebanon and Gaza, but they also demonstrate the growing presence of Iran and Iran’s proxies in regional affairs. A proper response requires intense vigilance, a creative approach, the ability to take robust measures when necessary, and a root-and-branch solution to the deadly challenge posed by the present Iranian regime. But none of these delicate commodities are on offer in great quantity, in the region or beyond.

In Lebanon, a very tense confrontation, which could erupt into extensive violence at any moment, has emerged over the vacant office of president. Even if General Michel Suleiman does get the job, as has already been discussed for weeks, by consensus, the battle lines may shift to the important appointment of his successor in command of the army. (One prospective candidate, General Francois al-Hajj—not quite to the Syrians’ liking—has already been disposed of by the tried and true method of a powerful car bomb.) Ultimately, however, this is about neither offices nor persons in power; it is about the basic orientation of a country and the question of whose writ will run: that of Syria, backed by Iran and by Iran’s proxies, or that of its enemies.

The latter, the so-called Fourteenth of March camp—named after the date of the massive protest three years ago, following the brutal assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri—is increasingly determined, in the words of fiery Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, to rid Lebanon of the armed terrorist elements who abuse the country on behalf of a foreign power, a not-too-subtle reference to Hezbollah and its Iranian masters. They are encouraged by firm American and French support, as well as by the prospect of serious steps by the international community to activate the tribunal that would put on trial those suspected of responsibility for Hariri’s murder (who are almost universally assumed to be ensconced in very high places in Damascus).

Nominally led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora, it is organized around the wealth and power of the Hariri clan, particularly Rafiq’s son and political heir, Sa’d—and sustained by some of the Maronite militias and by the fierce Druze fighters in the mountains east of Beirut. It is not difficult to pin upon them, as Hezbollah quite effectively does, accusations of corruption, mismanagement, and the abuse of power. But, at the end of the day, they represent the wishes of many Lebanese, of all denominations, to see their country prosper as an economic “playground” for the Arab world, to enjoy the good life by the Mediterranean, to tighten their links with the West—and to avoid being dragged into other peoples’ fights.
Other people, however, have other plans for Lebanon: From the perspective of the small clique governing Syria, they must win the power play into which Bashar al-Assad, lacking his father’s legendary caution, has thrown himself and his country. Unable, despite some bluster last year, to confront Israel directly on the battlefield (and humiliated, albeit not in public, by the swirling rumors as to what happened on September 6, 2007, regardless of the brave face put on it by his officials when they briefed Seymour Hersh), Assad and his regime have come to view Lebanon as the decisive test of their will and (crude) manipulative skills.

Even more important, moreover, is the Iranian role, as the long shadow of Tehran’s ambitions (and of the West’s perceived inability to curb them) falls over the region as a whole. Hezbollah is more than a powerful proxy; it is part and parcel of the Islamic revolution. Moreover, due to its achievements in battle, it has become the overriding piece of evidence that Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolutionary “line” can reduce Israel to a shadow of its former self—whereas all Sunni Arab regimes have failed to do so. This will continue to fuel the intense Iranian commitment to arm and train Hassan Nasrallah’s fighters, in blatant breach of UNSCR 1701, against all comers—Israeli and Lebanese alike—until the day when Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will finally dance the ultimate victory jig by the whirring centrifuges that will make Iran a military nuclear power.

Not surprisingly, Nasrallah has laid down the challenge: Try to wrest away our guns, and we shall fight. Somewhat more surprisingly—as an act of Druze bravado, or perhaps he knows something that we do not?—Jumblatt, the most significant warlord among the Fourteenth of March leaders, responded in kind. For the time being, shots have not been fired, and Israel has yet to be dragged in (which may be why media attention has been meager), but a very dangerous game is now being played in Lebanon, for very high stakes.

The same can be said for Gaza—but here it is in the glare of the public eye that a challenge is being posed by Iran’s allies. (Hamas, jealous of its prerogatives for “independence of decision,” like Fatah before them, is by no means an Iranian proxy; Palestinian Islamic Jihad, much smaller and more virulent, does merit that designation.) To understand the absurd practice of firing Qassam rockets at Sderot and the Western Negev—which, as even Hamas leaders know, will never cause the Zionist endeavor as a whole to shrivel up and die, and which costs the Palestinian people dearly in every aspect of their lives—one has to look upon it as a tool of ideological politics, not of war. Again, it is the capacity to inflict pain upon Israel—and to defy not only the West, but even Egypt and, of course, Mahmoud Abbas—which serves as the basis for the bid by Hamas (the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood) to dominate both Palestinian politics and the broader arena of Islamist dynamics, regionwide.

Iran is present here as well—not as overtly as in Beirut, but still as a regional power. Its role as a supplier of weapons to the Gaza Strip is only part of the challenge that Tehran’s rulers now try to hurl at their rivals and critics. With a sharp upturn in the level of hatred (if this were possible), the regime once again has committed itself to Israel’s extermination and, implicitly, to the pursuit of the means to do so, using the suffering of the people of Gaza (much of it authentic, some of it all-too-obviously manufactured) as their driving moral cause.

Given these new premises, can these two situations (and much else) be resolved if Iran is engaged and conciliated by the U.S.? Those who raise this prospect—such as scholars Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs—do so for good reasons, but they miss the point. If this were all about the preliminary power-dance of a negotiated agreement, which is to be followed by hard bargaining, it could make sense. But the tough-minded would-be negotiators have been run out by Ahmadinejad (and the would-be soft-minded negotiators face accusations of treason); he is not there to negotiate, as Javier Solana found out in his utterly useless talks with Ahmadinejad’s handpicked representative, Saeed Jalili, late last year. Relying upon “the people’s will” alone, he is not there to talk, but to implement a design. (In November, he publicly explained that when he spoke at Columbia University, the hand of the Mahdi, the Shiite equivalent of the messiah, guided his actions.) In this context, the need to offer a robust response to Iran’s aspirations has never been more urgent.

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