Khatami to praise and pressure Hizbollah
By Joseph Logan
BEIRUT: Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is likely to salute Hizbollah guerrillas with one hand and try to muzzle them with the other when he arrives in Beirut on Monday, analysts in Lebanon said.
His three-day visit is the first by an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It comes at a time when the United States has been trying to pressure Lebanon and Syria to rein in Hizbollah guerrillas fighting against Israel.
Hizbollah was initially nurtured by Iran and used to project its influence abroad after the 1979 revolution.
Analysts believe US pressure on Iran makes it likely that Khatami will seek more restraint from Hizbollah in its conflict with Israel and that Tehran could even stop weapons supplies to the guerrillas.
“There’s a public face to the visit, of support for Lebanon, Syria and Hizbollah, and a private one that means pressure for an even lower profile,” said Michel Nowfal, a commentator on Iranian politics with Lebanon’s Al Mustaqbal newspaper.
He noted that Iran was under pressure, branded part of an ‘axis of evil’ by US President George W Bush, that it had US troops on its borders, and that stopping arms supplies to Hizbollah “costs nothing, really”.
With Iran’s guidance, Hizbollah has evolved from a loose group of Lebanese Shi’ite militants that emerged after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon into an institution with seats in parliament and a broad network of social services.
Washington, which believes Hizbollah was behind the 1983 bombing of the Marines barracks that killed 241 US troops in Lebanon’s civil war, has always deemed the group “terrorist” and alleged it is active outside Lebanon, charges Hizbollah denies.
Since May of 2000, when Israel quit south Lebanon after a 22-year occupation and mounting casualties in its conflict with Hizbollah, the group’s military raison d’etre has been a disputed border zone where it has clashed with Israeli troops.
“I am sure that the Iranians have decided that they’re going to continue to support Hizbollah but not militarily as they have, that they’ll help financially, through other areas,” said Alireza Nourizadeh, an Iranian analyst.
He expected Khatami to use personal rapport with Hizbollah head Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah to sweeten the bitter pill of pressure not to fight; a move he said Iranian reformists led by Khatami may think could be of use in rehabilitating US ties.
But Nourizadeh noted that Khatami was probably not in a position to dictate terms to Hizbollah.
“I think that’s one of Khatami’s goals in coming to Lebanon: to speak to Hizbollah, to convince them, because it is not a puppet organisation anymore” he said.
He also felt Khatami, pushing for reforms in Iran, could benefit from helping to rein in Hizbollah.
“I’m also sure the Americans are watching this trip with both enthusiasm and concern.
They know the agenda and would show appreciation if Khatami succeeded in convincing Hizbollah leaders to lay down their arms for now,” he said. —Reuters