Iran backs Hezbollah in Lebanon

Posted in Iran | 19-Jul-06 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

Holding posters of Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah Lebanese young men, chant slogans during an anti-Israeli demonstration at the Palestine Sq. in Tehran, Iran, Tuesday, July 18, 2006.
PARIS Whether or not Iran directly planned or approved the military operations of Hezbollah against Israel, Iran's leaders have decided to support wholeheartedly the Lebanese militia - at least publicly - in its current military assault.

Iran's strategy seems to have a two- fold purpose: to deflect attention from Iran's impasse with the United States and five other world powers over its nuclear program and to position itself as an essential player in the region.

On Tuesday, Iran's rhetorical threats against Israel and its unswerving embrace of Hezbollah continued.

At a government-sanctioned, anti-Israel demonstration in Tehran, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, Iran's speaker of Parliament, warned that "Israel's northern cities are within the range of Hezbollah's missiles and no part of Israel will be safe."

The crowd of nearly 2,000 demonstrators replied with chants of "Death to America!" and "Death to Israel!"

As part of the theater of the day, demonstrators also read a statement asking the Iranian government to help them join Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, Iran's state-run television reported.

The rhetoric is no different from past statements by Iran. But the verbal support this time has fueled the conviction in many quarters that Iran is contributing to the current crisis over Lebanon as a way to project power.

"The Iranians are gambling that there won't be a military attack against them," said one senior European official who deals with Iran. "Iran is trying to say, 'Nothing is possible without me.' And for the moment, everyone's forgotten the nuclear issue."

Indeed, action on a resolution at the United Nations Security Council critical of Iran for failing to suspend its uranium enrichment activities is essentially on hold.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's spiritual leader, meanwhile, in a speech on Sunday praised Hezbollah for its fight against the "evil and cancerous being" that is Israel. Even as world leaders struggle to devise a plan to disarm Hezbollah, Khamenei predicted it would fail.

"The American president says Hezbollah should be disarmed," he said, adding, "But it will not happen."

Even Iran's former president Mohammad Khatami, who used his eight- year presidency to try to moderate Iran's foreign policy, on Sunday likened Hezbollah to "a shining sun that illuminates and warms the hearts of all Muslims and supporters of freedom in the world."

In a letter to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, Khatami, who heads Iran's Institute for Dialogue among Civilizations and Cultures, also said that the "Zionists' shocking atrocities in Palestine and Lebanon are a sign of their violent nature."

But it was noteworthy that Khatami implicitly also urged restraint, warning of "the spread of catastrophe and scale of destruction in Palestine and Lebanon."

Underscoring the heightened sense of Iran as a dangerous player, on Tuesday, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain accused Iran of supporting Hezbollah with weapons, "very similar if not identical to those used against British troops in Basra" in Iraq. Blair also accused Syria of supporting Iran "in many different ways" and both countries of

providing financial support. Israel, the United States, the Europeans and many Arab states have long claimed that Hezbollah receives its weaponry from Iran, a claim that many Iranian officials admit in private is true.

But officially, Iran denies providing Hezbollah with weaponry, denials that contribute to distrust of Iran.

Asked on Sunday about the Israeli claim that Iran supplied Hezbollah with missiles, Hamid-Reza Asefi, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, replied, "The Zionist regime has been caught in the quagmire it created. That is why it attempts to involve others in the case."

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, also has intensified the threats by pledging to support Syria if it is attacked. "If Israel commits another act of idiocy and attacks Syria, this will be the same as an aggression against the entire Islamic world and it will receive a stinging response," the state-run media quoted Ahamadinejad as saying Thursday in a telephone conversation with the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

But Iran also seems to be positioning itself for a role in resolving the crisis over Lebanon. In Damascus on Monday, Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said that a cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners would be a possible way forward in the Israeli-Lebanese conflict.

Both Iran and Syria have praised Hezbollah's capture of two Israeli soldiers, the event that triggered the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.