The Arab League holds an emergency meeting on Lebanon. France and the United States agree to work together to contain the Lebanese Hezbollah. Russia indicates support for compromise. Iran’s official government invites everyone to “joint diplomatic efforts” while the unofficial government promises fire and brimstone against attempts at curbing Hezbollah.
These recent Middle East headlines remind me of “The Adventures of Emir Arsalan The Famous”, a popular Persian picaresque novel written in the 19th century.
At one point the eponymic hero, searching the world for the great beauty Farrokh-Laqa who may be nothing but a fantasy, feels as if his life has become a constant repetition of exactly the same events and images.
The novel’s conceit echoes the Pythagorean theory of “eternal recurrence” according to which whatever is going to happen has already happened again and again.
In the case of Hezbollah the “eternal recurrence” started at the moment of its birth in 1982 when then Iranian Ambassador to Damascus Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Mohtashami informed his masters in Tehran that he had created “a structure” to dislodge the network of Palestinian gunmen loyal to Yasser Arafat, who, until the Israeli military intervention, had turned parts of southern Lebanon into “Fatahland”.
At the time, Iran and Israel were both happy to see the back of Arafat’s fighters. Israel regarded their presence close to itself as a threat while Tehran sought the destruction of the PLO because of Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran.
Soon, however, it became clear that Tehran meant to use its new branch of Hezbollah as a Trojan horse to turn Lebanon into a satrapy in all but name. The scheme scandalized and frightened many in Lebanon, including the then one-star General Michel Aoun who emerged as a champion of the campaign against the creation of a parallel army in Lebanon.
A promise to disband the armed section of Hezbollah became a major item in the secret negotiations that the late Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini’s government held with the Reagan administration in Washington in 1985-86.
However, eight years later Tehran was trying to sell the same bill of goods to a new US administration under President Bill Clinton.
In an 180-minute meeting in Damascus in 1993, Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher made a deal with then Syrian President Hafez Assad who assured him that Tehran was also on board.
The supposed “deal”, sold by Christopher to the Israelis as a major achievement, persuaded Israeli leaders not to take military action against Hezbollah.
However, the belauded “deal” soon proved meaningless as Hezbollah continued pinprick attacks against Israel’s Lebanese allies while also seizing more Western hostages on command from Tehran.
Three years later, Christopher was back in Damascus demanding that Assad put the previous “deal” in writing in exchange for Israel ending its “Operation Grapes of Wrath” without destroying Hezbollah’s armed structures.
This time, other actors became involved in the charade.
Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, an old expert on the region, embarked on a shuttle diplomacy to save Hezbollah from destruction in exchange for a promise to dissolve its armed units.
France went further by inviting then Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali-Akbar Velayati to Paris where he signed an accord with his French counterpart Herve de Charrette to guarantee the continued existence of Hezbollah in exchange for giving up its arms.
The tactic that Tehran used is known in diplomacy as “cheat-and-retreat”: When your back is to the wall you sign whatever your adversaries want. And, because your adversaries do not have the same attention span, they will soon forget what you had signed. Then you can resume your shenanigans until the next crisis.
In the past three decades the tactic has worked several times in saving Hezbollah.
The only concession that Iran has given is that, since 2006, it has not used Hezbollah for attacking Israel. This may be because Tehran understands that it might not be possible to deceive the Israelis a fifth time and that the next round may force Israel to ignore “diplomatic initiatives” and UN “resolutions”, and go full Monty in removing Hezbollah from the equation.
Tehran has been using Hezbollah in other theaters, including Iraq, Syria and Yemen as part of a strategy to dominate Arab states already weakened by civil war and/or foreign intervention.
“We’re fighting away from our borders so that we won’t have to fight along them,” says Gen. Pour-Dastan, who was Commander of the Iranian Ground Forces until last month.
Hezbollah may not be the sharpest knife in Tehran’s drawer, but it certainly is an element of instability in the region. As far as Iran is concerned this is a low-cost strategy, requiring around $800 million a year only, according to an analysis of Iran’s budgetary allocations.
Hezbollah’s primary victim remains Lebanon, a country that risks becoming an ungoverned space because its state institutions are becoming shadows while real power is exercised by Hezbollah.
We shall soon see whether “cheat-and-retreat” will once again deceive the Arabs and the Western powers into refraining from meaningful action to restore the authority of the Lebanese state.
For Lebanon to regain its dignity as a nation-state Hezbollah must become a normal political party not a Mafia-style armed group holding the nation to ransom on behalf of foreign paymasters.
The absence of strong state structures has been singled out by many Muslim scholars as the principal reason for the historic weakness of Islamic nations and their domination by Western powers from the 19th century onward.
In 1883, Jamaleddin Assadabadi, known to Arabs as al-Afghani, gave a lecture in Paris’ Sorbonne University in which he argued that Muslim nations would remain “vulnerable” for as long as their state structures could not exercise authority in the face of non-state forces controlled by interest groups or foreign powers.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.