The Hand That Feeds the Fire

The cool rage of Hassan Nasrallah crackled over the telephone line to a Beirut television station. Israeli jets had just tried to kill him from the air, destroying his home and office. "You wanted an open war, and we are ready for an open war," the Hizbullah leader warned. His missile-armed militia would reach deep into Israel. "Our homes will not be the only ones to be destroyed, our children will not be the only ones to die," he vowed. "You wanted to change the rules of the game? You don't know who you're fighting."

He had a point. Israel's nearby enemy was clear enough. The crisis began in Gaza on June 25, when a corporal in the Israeli Army was taken hostage by Hamas guerrillas. Then it exploded across the region last week after Hizbullah guerrillas crossed into Israel to snatch two more soldiers, killing eight. Israel's reaction was swift, brutal and massive. Its forces took the whole of Lebanon hostage, treating the state on its northern border just as it treated the Palestinian territory to its south, tearing apart highways, blockading ports, blowing up the runways and fuel dumps at Beirut's international airport--setting out not only to free the hostages but to eliminate Hizbullah once and for all. Yes, this was war. Nasrallah was right about that.

But battles--and battle lines --are rarely if ever simple in the Middle East. Nasrallah knows that. So do the Israelis, who saw hidden hands behind the Lebanese and Palestinian militants. They accused Syria, which harbors the Hamas leadership in exile and has a longstanding alliance with Hizbullah in Lebanon, of complicity. But they also saw the long arm of their ultimate enemy, Iran--the creator of Hizbullah, a patron of Hamas, the ally of Syria, the provider of rockets that struck 22 miles deep into Israel last week and a missile that crippled an Israeli warship. Iran, developer of nuclear technology and eventually, perhaps, nuclear weapons.

In an exclusive interview with NEWSWEEK's Richard Wolffe, President George W. Bush said he thinks those suspicions are legitimate: "There's a lot of people who believe that the Iranians are trying to exert more and more influence over the entire region and the use of Hizbullah is to create more chaos to advance their strategy." He called that "a theory that's got some legs to it as far as I'm concerned."

One aim of "those who perpetuate violence," said Bush, would be to disrupt the international consensus against Iran's nuclear-enrichment program. Hizbullah launched its attack on Israel the same day that foreign ministers from the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany agreed to push ahead with demands that Iran suspend its nuclear efforts. The second part of the Iranian strategy, Bush suggested, would be to "create conditions such that moderate governments tend to step back in fear, and the vacuum would then be filled by the proponents of an aggressive ideology."

For more than 50 years, the Middle East's wars have been the world's wars. Greater powers have used lesser ones as proxies, and battles between large states have been fought out in smaller ones--often in weak, divided Lebanon. But skirmishes can turn quickly to conflagrations, and calibrated violence can escalate suddenly into atrocity with unpredictable and enduring consequences. As fighting raged last week, global shocks were quick in coming. Oil prices soared to record highs--above $78 a barrel--and the troubled skies over Beirut filled with thunderous echoes of the bloody past: massive Israeli assaults on southern Lebanon in 1978 and 1996, and the full-scale invasion of 1982 that sucked the United States into a nightmare of truck-bombings and hostage-takings.

Bush's decision to invade Iraq as part of the "global war on terror" made America a party to the conflicts on the ground as never before. Saddam Hussein's regime, loathsome as it was, provided a strategic balance to the power of a radicalized Iran. Now the invasion has put Washington head-to-head with Tehran. The confrontation is military, economic, political, ideological, direct and indirect, overt and covert--and on several fronts the Iranians appear to have outmaneuvered the administration. Prominent Iranian journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, who is also an expert on Lebanese affairs, suggests that Tehran's next step, far from making war, will be to present itself as a peacemaker. "This will present an-other opportunity to show its regional power," he said.

At the foreign ministers' meeting in Paris last week, there was general consternation at the Iranian-backed violence on the ground in the Middle East. "But what can we do?" one senior European diplomat asked. "It's all part of the same problem [with Iran], but we cannot tackle it all 'cosmologically.' We have to take it on piece by piece." Each set of players linked to Iran has its own interests, and the Tehran regime itself seems seriously divided. The Iranian challenge is not a Gordian knot that can be sliced through in one bold stroke. It's a bag full of knots, each of which has to be untied and, if possible, untangled from the rest.

Hizbullah: Iran created the Shiite Lebanese militia Hizbullah--the "Party of God"--after Israeli troops stormed into Beirut in 1982. Initially trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the group continues to receive extensive funding and weapons from Tehran, including the arsenal of more than 13,000 short- and medium-range rockets and missiles now being used to attack Israel. According to terrorism analyst Magnus Ranstorp, an expert on Hizbullah who is now at the Swedish National Defence College, Hizbullah's decision-making council normally includes two Iranians. "Hizbullah is not a Lebanese organization, it's a proxy for Iran," says Ephraim Sneh, a former Israeli general and Labor Party member of the Knesset. "Nasrallah has never carried out an operation on this scale without his masters."

On Friday Nasrallah gleefully announced that his group had hit an Israeli warship off the coast of Lebanon. The vessel was badly damaged by the radar-guided weapon, identified by the Israelis as a C-802 antiship missile assembled in Iran. "There are very clear fingerprints of Iranian involvement," Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan told NEWSWEEK. Even so, the officer admitted, "whether it was operated by Iran, I can't confirm." Other senior Israelis were less cautious in their claims. Former Mossad director Danny Yatom says Iranians have been launching Hizbullah's longer-range rockets, like the ones that hit the Israeli port city of Haifa last week. "The finger that pulled the trigger was an Iranian finger," he declares--although U.S. and British intelligence sources say they doubt it.

In a broader sense, nothing Nasrallah does could be accomplished without Iranian backing, but he has also become a power in his own right. Last year, after Syrian troops were forced to withdraw from Lebanon by international pressure and massive street protests, Nasrallah's strength actually increased. The same U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 that required the Syrian pullout also called for the disarming of militias. Hizbullah refused, and there was no force in the country strong enough to take it on. "Today, Nasrallah is the dictator of Lebanon," says Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres. "He has his own army. He doesn't ask anybody what to do, least of all the Lebanese government."

Nevertheless, Israel says the massive destruction of vital Lebanese infrastructure is intended to show Lebanon's people the price they will pay for Nasrallah's decision to instigate a war. "You know that we are doing the right thing, and that if we succeed, Lebanon would be the beneficiary," Israel's U.N. Ambassador Dan Gillerman told Lebanon's envoy as they appeared before the Security Council last week.

The trouble is, anger against the Israelis is almost certain to grow even faster than against Hizbullah. Many Lebanese owe a great deal to Hizbullah's clinics, schools and other basic social services in the areas it dominates--underwritten, of course, by hundreds of millions of dollars from Iran. When Israel finally decided to withdraw completely from southern Lebanon in 2000, after relentless pressure from Hizbullah's guerrilla attacks, the organization achieved heroic status not only in Lebanon, but throughout the Muslim world. Nasrallah, especially, emerged as a charismatic leader, his speeches carried regionwide by Hizbullah's own Al Manar satellite television station.

Part of Nasrallah's mystique is as a man of his word. He vowed to oust Israel from Lebanese land, and he succeeded. But Nasrallah also vowed to free hundreds of captured Lebanese in Israeli jails. In 2004 he ransomed an Israeli businessman for 400 prisoners, but others remained in jail. By late last year Nasrallah was on the prowl again, looking for new captives to use as bargaining chips in another swap. In November the Israelis announced that they'd thwarted an attempt by Hizbullah to take Israeli soldiers as hostages. It should have been no surprise when members of the Hamas military wing in Gaza adopted a similar strategy last month to try to win the release of some of the 10,000 Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

The Palestinians: There's no more potent issue in the Muslim world than the fate of the Holy Land, and Iran has been looking for a piece of that righteous action since the early days of the Khomeini revolution. As if to underscore the point, the unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards charged with carrying out operations abroad, including terrorism, is called Al Quds--which is the Arabic name of Jerusalem. Tehran has pledged at least $50 million to help underwrite the embattled Hamas government elected in January. But it's the clandestine ties that are of most concern to Israel, its neighbors and the United States.

The alliance between Hizbullah and Hamas dates back to 1992, when Israel rounded up hundreds of Hamas activists and dumped them in no man's land, on the Lebanese side of the border. The Beirut government refused to let the militants travel any farther, and they found themselves stranded on barren hillsides that were, in fact, under Hizbullah's control. The two groups have serious religious differences: Hamas follows a militant Sunni strain of Islam, and Hizbullah is Shiite. All the same, Hizbullah offered tents and food to the stranded Palestinians, and the friendship grew from there.

Jordan's security services, fearful that their territory might become a base--or a target--for terrorist attacks, have tracked the Iranian connection very closely. Jordanian intelligence sources, declining to be named because of the sensitivity of security issues, recall that by 1997 their government was arresting and interrogating Hamas members who had received, in the words of one veteran security officer, "religious, military, counterinterrogation and even intel-ligence training in Iran." Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal was living in Jordan at the time, and that's where the Israelis tried to assassinate him. When he recovered, he made several trips to Tehran before the Jordanians told him not to come back, in 1999.

Iran's support for the Palestinian militants only continued to grow. After the second intifada against Israel began in 2000, the Israelis intercepted boatloads of arms sent from Iran or through Hizbullah to Palestinian guerrilla groups. The last ship, intercepted in 2003, was a fishing trawler carrying not only munitions and manuals from Lebanon to Gaza, but a Hizbullah bomb-maker as well.

Meshaal ended up in Syria, where he remains with a high public profile. Last week he met reporters at the Four Seasons Hotel in the capital. His ties to the Syrian government? "It's clear we have bad relations," he joked. "That's why I'm giving a press conference in Damascus." And his links to Hizbullah? "They are part of the resistance [to Israel], so of course we have contacts."

The Syrians: Posters on walls all over Damascus last week showed President Bashar al-Assad flanked by Nasrallah on one side and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the other. Syria is the go-between, the vital link between Iran and Hizbullah, as well as between Iran and Palestinian radicals. Assad's father, the dictator Hafez al-Assad, always took care to keep control of the troublesome proxies he used against Israel. In 1987, when members of Hizbullah grew so cocky that they started humiliating Syrian troops at checkpoints in Beirut, Assad had several of them lined up in their barracks and shot. But Bashar is much weaker, and much more dependent on Iran--virtually his only ally. Last month Damascus and Tehran signed a military agreement to establish "a joint front against Israel." The pact includes a commitment promising unrestricted passage through Syria for Iranian arms shipments to Hizbullah.

The Iraqis: Tehran scarcely needs Syrian help to infiltrate Iraq. Iran's influence is pervasive there already. The Baghdad press reported last week that the Iranians had allocated $1 billion to develop Iraq's telecommunications industry and integrate the two countries' systems. Iran sponsors book fairs, supports the pilgrimage of millions of Iranians to Shiite holy places in Iraq and provides transportation for Iraqi pilgrims going the other way to shrines in Iran.

Iran also exerts a much more sinister presence. Residents of Basra report that members of the Iranian intelligence service operate openly in their city's streets. Iranian agents are said to have infiltrated the militias, the political parties and the Iraqi security services. U.S. officials believe that Iran gave Iraqi insurgents know-how to build the shaped-charge IEDs that have been so effective in attacking Coalition forces--a technique perfected by Hizbullah guerrillas against the Israelis. Although Iran presents itself as the defender of Shiites in Iraq's worsening sectarian warfare, it has also had at least a passing relationship with Al Qaeda terrorists who have made every effort to instigate a blood feud between Sunnis and Shiites. The late, unlamented Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi initially made his way from Afghanistan to Iraq in 2001 through Iranian territory, and some intelligence reports suggest a more extensive relationship with Iran, at least in the early days of his terrorist career.

Iran's clerics have deep ideological differences with the nettlesome Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr. Even so, Tehran supports him and his Mahdi Army militia, which has repeatedly been linked to ferocious death-squad killings. "I used to fight for free," a former member of Sadr's forces told NEWSWEEK, "but today the Mahdi Army receives millions of dollars every month from Iran in exchange for carrying out the Iranian agenda." Part of the program: assassinations of prominent Sunnis and former Iraqi military officers who fought against Iran in the 1980-88 war. The United States would not like to confront, again, the kind of simultaneous Sunni and Shiite insurrections it faced in 2004, but tensions are fierce. "The government is unable to do anything to control the Mahdi Army," says Sheik Abu Muhammad al-Baghdadi, a well-connected figure in the Shiite holy city of Najaf. "This Army is a bomb set to go off in the near future."

The Iranians: When Tehran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, met last week with the European Union's Javier Solana and delegates from Britain, France, Germany and Russia, they expected he'd make some counteroffer to their proposed package of incentives for Iran to stop its nuclear-enrichment program. But no. "If he'd come with a partial response, we could have kept on," said one of the Europeans in the room, who asked not to be identified because of the confidentiality of the discussion. "But he came with no response. Instead, he kept saying that all this was entirely about 'regime change,' so why talk at all?"

European and American officials were surprised by the obstinacy, but also intrigued. Larijani arrived in Brussels with what one described as a "huge" delegation, suggesting the various members were keeping an eye on each other. "It could be that they have not made up their minds," said the official.

Perhaps. Iranian bloggers and other commentators suggest the regime is badly divided over Ahmadinejad's radical rhetoric, and the risks he is running in the confrontation over nuclear arms. Nevertheless, as soon as the fruitless talks in Brussels had adjourned, the delegation went straight to Damascus. And the next day, Nasrallah started his war.

The Hand That Feeds the Fire | News