Lebanon: Is cheat-and-retreat back on the menu for Hezbollah?
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, echoing the Pythagorean theory of “eternal recurrence,” which states that whatever has already happened is going to happen again and again.
In the case of Hezbollah, “eternal recurrence” started at the moment of its birth in 1982 when the 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’s 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 as a threat while Tehran sought the destruction of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) because of Arafat’s support for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war. Soon, however, it became clear that Tehran meant to use Hezbollah as a Trojan horse to turn Lebanon into a satrapy in all but name. The scheme outraged and frightened many in Lebanon, including the then-one-star Gen. Michel Aoun, who emerged as a champion of the campaign against the creation of a parallel army in Lebanon.
A promise to disband Hezbollah’s paramilitary wing 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.
Eight years later, Tehran was trying to sell the same bill of goods to a new US administration under President Bill Clinton.
In a 180-minute meeting in Damascus in 1993, Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher made an almost-identical deal with then-Syrian President Hafez Assad, who assured him that Tehran was also on board.
That supposed deal, sold by Christopher to the Israelis as a major achievement, persuaded Israeli leaders not to take military action against Hezbollah. However, it soon proved meaningless, as Hezbollah continued targeted attacks against Israel’s Lebanese allies while seizing more Western hostages, as commanded by Iran.
Three years later, Christopher was back in Damascus demanding that Assad put that same deal in writing in exchange for Israel ending its 16-day campaign against Lebanon — “Operation Grapes of Wrath” — without destroying Hezbollah’s armed structures.
At that point, other actors became involved in the charade.
Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, an expert on the region, embarked on shuttle diplomacy to save Hezbollah from destruction in exchange for a promise that it would dissolve its armed units.
France went further by inviting Iran’s foreign minister at the time, 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 surrendering its arms.
The tactic that Tehran used in these cases is known in diplomacy as “cheat-and-retreat.” When your back is against the wall, you sign whatever your adversaries want. Then, because your adversaries do not have the same attention span, they will soon forget what you signed. Then you can resume your shenanigans until the next crisis.
It is a tactic that has saved Hezbollah several times in the past three decades.
The only concession that Iran has given is that, since 2006, it has not used Hezbollah to attack Israel. This may be because Tehran understands that any attempt to deceive the Israelis a fifth time could force Tel Aviv to ignore “diplomatic initiatives” or UN “resolutions” and decide to simply remove Hezbollah from the equation.
Hezbollah may not be the most dangerous weapon Tehran possesses, but it is certainly an element of instability in the region. And as far as Iran is concerned, using Hezbollah is a relatively low-cost strategy, requiring around $800 million every year, according to an analysis of Iran’s budgetary allocations.
When your back is against the wall, you sign whatever your adversaries want. Then, because your adversaries do not have the same attention span, they will soon forget what you signed. Then you can resume your shenanigans until the next crisis.
While it has avoided confronting Israel in over a decade, Tehran has been putting Hezbollah to work in other theaters — including Iraq, Syria and Yemen — during that time 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,” said Gen. Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, who was commander of the Iranian Ground Forces until last month. Hezbollah’s primary victim, though, remains Lebanon — a country that risks becoming an ungoverned space in which its state institutions are shadows and Hezbollah exercises the real power.
Muslim scholars have identified the absence of strong state structures 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 at the Sorbonne in Paris 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.
We shall soon see whether “cheat-and-retreat” will once again deceive Arabs and Western powers into refraining from meaningful action to restore the authority of the Lebanese state.
For Lebanon to regain its dignity, Hezbollah must become a normal political party, not a mafia-style armed group holding the nation to ransom on behalf of foreign paymasters.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
• Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.