May 30, 2007

Lebanon: Exploiting Ali Larijani's notable idea

By Michael Young
Daily Star , Lebanon, staff
Thursday, May 31, 2007

In an interview with the French daily Le Figaro published on Saturday, the head of Iran's national security council, Ali Larijani, had some interesting things to say about Lebanon. After calling for Franco-Iranian cooperation to help resolve the Lebanese crisis, he proposed a four-point plan. In many respects the plan was a trap, an opening hardly worth considering in most of its details, but for one thing: For the first time, an Iranian official mentioned a mechanism for Hizbullah's disarmament.

Larijani's plan is not so very different, in most of its aspects, than what Hizbullah is demanding today. In a first phase, Larijani proposed forming a national unity government in which all sides would be represented; in a second phase, holding the trial inside Lebanon, not before an international court, of those suspected of involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri; in a third phase, in three months, election of new president who is a consensus figure "not emotionally implicated with one side of Lebanon's political class"; and in a fourth phase, initiating an effort to "convince" Hizbullah to transform itself into a political party and integrate its militants into the Lebanese Army.

The sequencing of Larijani's phases made his plan unworkable, as did the fact that Iran would like to see the Hariri tribunal effectively neutralized. However, two things were significant in the initiative, beyond what it meant for Hizbullah. First, Larijani confirmed that Iran had a crucial role to play in Lebanon's future, especially when it came to the future of Hizbullah, and that it was willing to engage the international community on that front. Lebanon is under de facto international trusteeship today, thanks to the web of United Nations resolutions affecting the country; Larijani implicitly admitted that Iran accepted this situation and was willing to deal with it, but also that it had the means and wherewithal to shape outcomes in Lebanon, negatively or positively.

The second message was that it was Iran, not Syria, that would "deliver" Hizbullah. By suggesting undermining the Hariri tribunal, Larijani didn't stray off the reservation of Syrian-Iranian relations, though he knew the condition was an empty one given the vote this week on the tribunal at the Security Council. However, he did pull the rug out from under a major Syrian justification for returning to Lebanon. This might, of course, have been a maneuver, and if the Syrians were ever to return, it is not Larijani who would stop them. Moreover, the Iranian ambassador in Beirut would only describe Larijani's scheme as "ideas." However, the plan may also represent a qualitatively new moment for Iranian involvement in Lebanese affairs, and the Syrians could not have been enthusiastic. Here's why.

It would be foolish to believe that Syria and Iran are at this time divided over Lebanon. Their interests run in parallel, and there is much mileage in continued cooperation. However, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah's speech last Friday may have indicated there are stress marks worth highlighting. Many interpreted his statements on the deadlock in Nahr al-Bared, particularly his insistence that both the army and its entry into the camp were "red lines," as a defense of Syrian interests. Partly, they were. Syria doesn't want the army to go into Nahr al-Bared, as this would represent a major setback for its strategy in North Lebanon. It might also lead to the legitimization of military force when addressing Palestinian groups outside the camps, particularly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is under Syria's thumb.

Nasrallah has similar calculations. The disarmament and elimination of the PFLP-GC is a red line for Hizbullah too, and the secretary general all but made that clear in the national dialogue sessions last year. Similarly, Nasrallah knows that a Lebanese Army considered credible by a majority of Lebanese is one that makes Hizbullah's weapons look superfluous. That is why March 14 rushed up to the Defense Ministry last week to show support for the armed forces and their commander, General Michel Suleiman.

However, there also appeared to be sincerity in Nasrallah's warning to the army. If the army enters Nahr al-Bared, the Syrians will almost certainly respond by encouraging Salafists in the Ain al-Hilweh camp in Sidon to rise up against the army. The mainstream Palestinian groups, particularly Fatah and Hamas, while they outnumber the small Islamist groups concentrated around the camp's Al-Nour Mosque, are not united enough to decisively prevent this from happening. Hamas in particular is in no position to challenge Syrian interests, while Fatah has no desire, or perhaps even the means, to fight the Salafists on its own. What would this mean for Nasrallah? He could find himself, much to his alarm, with a Salafist insurrection at the South's doorstep, which could prove disastrous for Sunni-Shiite relations, and for Hizbullah in particular. This could be the first stage in an effort to make of Lebanon a new Iraq.

Would Syria do that to Nasrallah? After all isn't he a redoubtable ally of the Assad regime? The secretary general knows that Syria, in an effort to ward off the threat of the international tribunal, may be willing to go all the way in Lebanon, even if it means provoking Sunni-Shiite hostilities. After all, that was the message in the recent kidnapping and murder of the two Ziads, which was made to look like it was an operation organized by Shiites affiliated to Hizbullah. It is doubtful that Hizbullah sanctioned such an irresponsible crime. Both Walid Jumblatt and Nasrallah diligently avoided any escalation because they could see the motive behind it. Afterward Nasrallah must have reflected on the fact that even Hizbullah was not safe when it came to Syrian actions.

In the coming months there will continue to be efforts to play Lebanese communities against each other. For the moment we must presume that Hizbullah, while it will spare no effort to advance its own agenda, will not readily allow itself to be pushed toward civil war either. Iran probably agrees. The Larijani plan is a ruse, but it contains a notable idea. The majority in Lebanon, as it watches the United States and Iran begin their dialogue over Iraq, might investigate if there are ways to exploit that notable idea. And it must ask Nasrallah what he thinks about it.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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