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Iran Offers More Than Just Cash

Persia Rising

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Beirut

It may seem incongruous that in 2009, the U.S.A would have much competition from the Islamic republic of Iran for the hearts and minds of the Lebanese, a diverse 18 sect, highly sophisticated population, with a history of western attachments extending back before the Crusades.

Yet is appears to be  the case, as the power and prestige of Iran quickly spreads in the region and its myriad relations with Lebanon, which have existed for a millennia, deepen as American influence wanes.

The extent to which Washington has ‘lost’ Lebanon to Iran will likely be clarified in the near term, as the ripples from the Bush legacy,  the seismic effects of Israel’s  recent slaughter in Gaza, and the results of the coming Lebanese and Iranian elections impact the region.

Lebanon’s regional challenge is to work with the growing regional power which is not Egypt, Israel or Saudi Arabia, but rather Iran. The 9000 year old civilization, converted to Shia Islam by Lebanese scholars in 1501, is likely to be strategically allied with Lebanon, Turkey, Syria and Russia with the  Camp David signers competing, despite Hosni Mubarak’s vow to the contrary, for ‘runner-up’ status.

Lebanon is contracting from its relationship with the United States after years of US pressured and purchased collaboration with Israel. The Lebanese appear to be realizing, following the destruction of July 2006, Israel’s fifth war against Lebanon, and the December 2008 slaughter in Gaza, Israel’s eleventh attack against Palestine that the Zionist state wants only land, not peace and that given Israel’s occupation of Washington DC that Lebanon’s future should be one of Resistance not obeisance.   In short, many in Lebanon are seeking a reliable ally not a continuation of US pressured collaboration with Israel.

Iran offers Lebanon more than cash

The US Embassy, on 04/14/09, after reviewing the results of ‘in Embassy’ polling data in what is considered in Washington a fateful Lebanese election for Israel, announced at precisely 2:35 p.m. that “the United States will provide the Lebanese army with 12 Raven unmanned aircrafts to be delivered  soon” (read: before the election).
Roughly three hours later at 5:55pm 4/14/09 the U.S. Embassy issued another press release: “The United States will give the Interior Ministry $1.7-million in aid to help it rise to challenges during the elections”.

Amended to: “for “election responsibilities.” Half an hour later the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Lebanon Mission Director Denise A. Herbol  elaborated and explained that  the US cash would provide” technical assistance” during  the elections. USAID is playing a important role in Lebanon’s 2009 election, as it has done since it arrived in 1951.

(Historical note regarding USAID:  Exactly 26 years ago this week, on April 18, 1983 at 1 p.m., USAID Director Bill McIntyre and American journalist Janet Lee Stevens, who had gone to the US Embassy on the seafront Paris Avenue to discuss American policy and the need for urgent assistance to help the dispossessed Palestinians and Lebanese Shia forced from their homes in South Lebanon by the 1982 Israeli invasion, began their luncheon meeting in the Embassy cafeteria. Moments later the ten-story center section of the Embassy pancaked from an exploding 2000 lb. bomb transported inside a Embassy van, stolen in 1982, as it rammed into the entrance. Both Bill and Janet died instantly. I wrote more about Janet last year.

US Ambassador to Lebanon Michele Sison, who witnessed the signing of the agreement, altered the description saying the money would help with “the tabulation of election results.”

Some Lebanese were not buying the Embassy’s seemingly frenzied cash dispersal explanations and one U.S. Embassy Hezbollah supporter (there actually are a discrete few– “I would love to visit Dahiyeh  (the Hezbollah area) but we  can’t go anywhere!”) claimed the $1,700,000 might end up as ‘walking around money’ for Election Day.

Iran, (more than 90 per cent Shia) and Lebanon (approximately 52 per cent Shia) are increasingly connected through scores of thousands of intermarried families, deep cultural and religious values as well as growing political and economic ties.

American aid to Israel has exceeded $160 billion to Israel over the past 40 years, and depending on how one calculates it today, gives Israel between $8 and $15 million every day of the year.  Not lost on the Lebanese is the fact that over the past two decades, until the prospect of Iran’s ally Hezbollah becoming the majority in parliament in two months time, US aid to Lebanon approximated just $35 million in a good year.  Recently, (since 2006) military assistance to Lebanon totaled close to $410 million, being light weaponry for use inside Lebanon rather than to defend the country from Israeli aggressions.

The new Lebanese government will likely legislate Hezbollah’s arms legitimacy, with the Lebanese Resistance military capability linked to the Lebanese Armed Forces by a yet-to-be clarified formula. For the first time in its history, Lebanon will not be subject to the threat of Israeli occupation, and many Lebanese hope their country can play an important role in returning its 400,000 Palestinian refugees to their country.

Iranian aid has been more than ten times US aid over the past quarter century and since Lebanon was substantially destroyed with American weapons in 2006 Iran has given Lebanon nearly 75 times  combined annual US aid.

21st first century Lebanon, is no longer much impressed with the US Terrorism list (what former Senator James Abourezk calls the “Honor Roll”) which for 12 years has blacklisted Hezbollah, and since 2006 and 2008 Lebanon’s two most productive reconstruction companies, Jihad al Bina and Waad (Promise). Lebanese  media and  NGO’s  have asked visiting US officials  to help them understand in which ways  it is terrorism to rebuild homes, schools, clinics, churches, mosques and bookstores destroyed by Israel  over the past more than forty years with US weapons. 

Another factor influencing Lebanese attitudes toward Iran and the US are the experiences of those whose relatives fought against, or were victims of, serial Israeli aggressions against their country as far back as the 1960’s.  Despite the Lebanese love-hate relationship with its 400,000 Palestinian refugees and however much each abused the other at various times since the initial welcome of victims of the 1947-8 Nakba, Lebanon today overwhelmingly supports the internationally recognized Palestinian Right of Return, endorsed perhaps most assertively by Iran. Both Lebanon and Iran want Lebanon’s Palestinians back where they belong in Palestine. 

Over the past year, one senses a renaissance of Lebanese solidarity with the Palestinian cause and hears vocal support, certainly post Gaza, for regional solidarity and Resistance to challenge Israeli terrorism.

Iran is seen as a better ally of Lebanon because while a majority of Lebanese Muslims are not fervent practitioners they, like Iran, respect Koranic standards of justice and they realize Iran will not cave in to US and Israeli demands to abandon the Palestinian’s Right to Return. It is this internationally recognized right which Lebanese believe, is the central component of the Palestinian cause which they believe is the central cause of Arabs, Muslim and all people of goodwill.

The Iranian and Lebanese position on Palestine is shared most strongly among the younger generation in Lebanon.  This includes a recognition that the nearly 50 year “peace process industry” project was a fraud, led by a hugely biased “dishonest broker” and without a “peace partner” from the Israeli side.  Consequently, there is little confidence that the Obama administration’s language about the “inevitability of two States”, “imperative of a just solution” is not just more talk while Israel steals more land and kills more Palestinians.  What increasingly makes sense to the Lebanese is what history taught them in their own country with Iranian assistance, that occupation creates resistance and determination and belief in justice and sacrifice trumps conventional military might.  The Lebanese are proud of their victories in 2000 and 2006, made possible by Iranian backing their resistance forces while being acutely aware that the US provided the weapons to Israel that have killed their families and loved ones for six decades.

Iranistan in Lebanon or a (Egyptian-Jordanian-Saudi) Shi’ization conspiracy?

While critics of the Lebanese Resistance sometimes joke about “Divine Victories”, and  “Victory Mountains” (of rubble from Israeli bombs) the current Egyptian campaign against Hezbollah and Hassan Nasrallah is viewed as an attack on Lebanon itself, and concocted  in response partly to Lebanon’s  growing ties with Iran. The local Lebanese reaction, depending on the sect, is as though “Egypt’s new Pharaoh” Hosni Mubarak, blasphemed against Lebanon’s Maronite Patriarch, Shiite Grand Ayatollah, Sunni Imam, Druze Tribal leader, Armenian Bishop or the late Martyred Rafiq Hariri. Much of Lebanon is offended, and the timing is viewed as a  trumped up political case to help the US and Israeli-backed March 14 group in the coming election.  Following discovery of “the plot”, and as if on cue, Shimon Peres, one of the key implementers of Zionist colonial ambitions (emphasis mine), took the opportunity to leak that Israel’s Mossad helped Egyptian intelligence and to declare yet again that “the collision between the Middle East, which is Sunni Arab, and the Iranian non-Arab Shia minority that seeks to take it over, is inevitable. Sooner or later, the world will discover that Iran has the aspiration to take over the Middle East and that it possesses colonial ambitions”.  

Few Lebanese believe that Hezbollah wants an Iranian style Islamic Republic in Lebanon or that it is even a goal of Iran.  “The ‘Islamic Republic for Lebanon’ slogan was from the early 1980’s and has been repeatedly repudiated by Hezbollah. It was revolutionary stuff to get the attention of would be recruits when Hezbollah was competing with Amal and 30 other groups for new members”, according to a Hezbollah recruiter in the Bekaa, near Nabysheet, who helped build Hezbollah 26 years ago.  Some anti-Iranian politicians still try to float that idea from time to time but few in Lebanon believe it.

Many Lebanese, who want good relations with both the US and Iran, believe that US administrations have squandered many opportunities for dialogue with Iran due to its inflexible pro Israel agenda.  There is general agreement that Iran has already “won” the nuclear power issue and will have its nuclear reactors and if it decides to make a bomb it will achieve that too. Lebanese welcome the US climb down from the Bush administration’s demand that Iranian enrichment be suspended as the price to get talks with the US, and don’t accept the spectacle of   nine nuclear countries jumping up and down shouting that a nuclear weapon for Iran is a ‘red line’ while at the same time all are refining and increasing their own nuclear arsenals. Nor are many Lebanese unaware of  US intelligence community reports that Iran  is not pursuing a nuclear weapon or that under the Obama defense budget the US will continue to spend on its arsenal  (including its nuclear weapons) more than all the rest of the world put together.

According to the opinion editor on a Beirut Daily, “If the international community is serious about keeping nuclear weapons out of the Middle East let it lead a project at the UN Security Council to decommission all nuclear weapons –[ ie Israel’s] in the area and forbid future ones.  Unless it does, who is to take Osama’s nuclear disarmament proposal seriously? Iranian pleas for a nuclear free zone in the Middle East have been ignored, although everyone but Israel in the region would support it.”

Given the likelihood that Obama’s goal of nuclear disarmament will not be achieved anytime soon, many Lebanese actually support an Iranian nuclear deterrent meanwhile as a guarantee that Israel does not launch a sixth war against their vulnerable Country.

A Lebanese University political science professor, attending the “Jerusalem as the Center of Arab Culture” Exhibition of Palestinian Culture at Beirut’s UNESCO Palace on 03/12/09 explained: “Iran and the Muslim-Christian Lebanese Resistance will keep Israel out of Lebanon. The US promises to support our sovereignty with a few weapons that are meant to bolster their friends in coming election.  Watch what the US does if the Opposition prevails on June 7.  It is viewed as not reliable. Iran has been close to Lebanon for hundreds of years.  We may not agree with all their interpretations of Islam but trust them.”

US-Israeli efforts to demonize Iran to the Lebanese, defaming it as a hotbed of fundamentalist Islamic fascists have failed. Only 46 per cent of Lebanese, in a recent poll taken by the Pew Charitable Trusts Global Values Project, agreed with the statement, “Religion is very important to me” while nearly 90per cent of Muslims said they had a favorable view of Christians.  Sentiments like these, illustrate the Lebanese acceptance of diversity, and explain why many not very religious Lebanese support  religious Hezbollah for its secular programs and at the same time are grateful for broad Iranian assistance which is offered free of  Khomeinist Puritanism.

Continuing Israeli lobby claims that Iran could acquire a nuclear weapon, “within months” and mortally endanger Lebanon draw a yawn from many Lebanese given that Israel is estimated to have between 250-400 and has actually threatened to use them as Golda Meir forced then President Nixon to airlift massive arms shipments from US depots at Clark Air force base in the Philippines during the October 1973 Ramadan War.

Netanyahu’s Passover Confession?

“The biggest danger to humanity and to Israel comes from the possibility of a radical regime armed with nuclear weapons," Netanyahu told his new Cabinet last month, making clear his remarks were aimed at Iran. Netanyahu’s statement is currently the butt of jokes in Lebanon because Netanyahu’s “a radical regime” language appears to fit Israel’s, not Iran’s.  “Is it Bibi’s   Passover confession?” one English language Beirut talk show hostess asked her audience.

Netanyahu’s “messianic apocalyptic cult” in Iran is the same one Israel shipped arms to in the 1980’s when it was trying to weaken Iraq and it’s the same regime that has not invaded anyone for more than 500 years and has kept its country at peace, valuing stability over military adventures while Israel has been occupying and invading its neighbors for six decades.

US Israel lobby stalwart, Dennis Ross, who effectively promoted Israeli, not American interests during the Clinton  and Bush Administrations, (now inexplicitly assigned to the Iran file), hypes a supposed threat of Israeli annihilation from a nuclear-armed Iran.  His major concern is that an Iranian nuclear deterrent would end Israel’s dominance of the region and that Iran and a new Lebanese government working together would force major territorial concessions (including full Israeli withdrawal to the 6/04/67 1949 Armistice line) and dramatically advance Middle East peace. This was hinted at by Netanyahu when he told the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg recently that “a nuclear-armed Iran would create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area". Lebanese Human Rights Ambassador Ali Khalil agrees:  “Iran is a threat only to Zionism, nothing more—same with Hezbollah and all those who make up the growing Palestinian and international Resistance to Israeli terrorism.”

Lebanese appear to believe, as Sergei Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the US mentioned last week, that Iran poses no threat to the United States or to Lebanon.

The Israel lobby is not entirely happy with Obama. His inaugural pledge that his administration would reach out to rival states and “will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist” was met with a cold glare by the Israel lobby.

When, barely two months later he told leaders in Turkey that “We want Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations, politically and economically” and added, “We will support Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear energy with rigorous inspections, it was viewed as way out of Israel-Lobby fixed bounds. Where was Hilary’s language threatening to obliterate Iran with US nuclear weapons?  

Lebanon does not want to choose between Tehran and Washington

Without current natural resources (there may be gas and oil off its coast) Lebanon continues to work to develop its tourism and banking industries and to model itself roughly after Switzerland. Many in Lebanon and in Iran are waiting to test the words of the Obama administration.

As one of Lebanon’s leading clerics, Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, widely respected in Lebanon, Iran and the Middle East, told his congregation last Friday at noon prayers, “We have heard beautiful words from the new American administration.  Through open and honest dialogue and discussing freely all the concerns of each side, we can resolve our misunderstanding and make a better life for all our people”.

Lebanon will resist US pressure to diminish its expanding relations with Iran as it resists the Bush legacy of “with us or against us.”  Its people strongly prefer good relations with both Tehran and Washington and this will remain the case after June 7.

In a critical sense it is the US government that must choose between normal relations with the Middle East and much of the world, respond to the changing mood of the American public toward Israeli crimes, and continuing connivance with and support for expansionist Zionism. The American choice will determine its future presence and status in this region.

FRANKLIN LAMB is doing research in Lebanon and can be reached at fplamb@sabrashatila.org.