Diplomacy: The French connection

Hizbullah is to Iran what aircraft carriers were to rest of world: a vessel for projecting power abroad.

livni douste-blazy 298.8 (photo credit: Associated Press)
livni douste-blazy 298.8
(photo credit: Associated Press)
The policy-makers who wrote Israel's public diplomacy narrative during the first weeks of the second war in Lebanon seriously underwrote the role of one key player: Iran. For whatever reason, the country's top leadership avoided - in most of their public statements - pointing a clear accusatory finger at Teheran for the unbearable situation that was created in southern Lebanon. Perhaps they were too concerned about the war at hand; perhaps they were fearful that such words would lead to an unpredictable Iranian reaction. Whatever the case, Iran not only paid no direct price for its responsibility for Hizbullah, even on the diplomatic front there were meager public efforts at illustrating the clear Iranian-Hizbullah connection. Hizbullah, however, is to Iran what aircraft carriers were during the 20th century to the rest of the civilized world - a vessel for projecting power abroad. Hizbullah is the prototype of how Iran impacts events and intimidates countries well beyond its immediate sphere of influence in the Persian Gulf. Iran needs a strong Hizbullah in order to realize its long-term strategic goals, and the Iranians could very well use the organization - as well as other Iranian proxies - in a time of crisis over the nuclear issue. As far back as April, The Washington Post quoted a Pentagon official as saying that if the US took military action against Iran to stop its nuclear program, "Hizbullah [would] not sit on the sidelines. Unless the Israelis take them out, they will mobilize against us." Israel did not "take Hizbullah out," but did, by most accounts, deliver it a stinging blow. The aircraft carrier was hit, but it didn't sink. Nevertheless, an important arm of Iranian policy did sustain considerable damage. A debate is now raging in Jerusalem over whether the events of the summer will embolden Iran to thumb its nose at the globe at will, because of the lionization of Hizbullah in the Arab world amid the perception that it won the war, or whether the events - and Iran's responsibility for them - will convince the world of the need to stop Iran's nuclear ambitions. Regardless, if the Iranian connection to Hizbullah was not made clear in the first days of the war, the interconnection is becoming clear in the war's immediate aftermath. During the war's first blush, one widely-repeated line was that Hizbullah triggered the crisis - kidnapped Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev - at Iran's behest in order to divert world attention from the Iranian nuclear march. The G-8 was about to meet in mid-July, with the focus expected to be on Iran, but as a result of the kidnappings and Israel's response to them, the discussions - at least publicly - centered on Lebanon. The widespread impression was that Iran was forgotten. But it wasn't. On July 31, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 1696, which called on Iran to stop enriching uranium, or else face sanctions. This is a resolution Israel and the US had been trying to pass for months. The world was preoccupied with Lebanon, but the Security Council - amid little fanfare - finally passed the resolution on Iran. On Thursday, the International Atomic Energy Agency is expected to submit a report saying Iran indeed has not stopped enrichment. The world will then consider sanctions. And here is where the interconnection with Lebanon becomes clear. Israeli officials are making the point to their counterparts abroad that firm implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701 on Lebanon will send a strong signal to Iran that the resolution dealing with its nuclear ambitions will also be implemented. But if the world waffles on 1701, Iran has no reason to believe it will be any firmer on 1696. And one of the conditions of 1701 is a robust international force of some 15,000 troops to help the Lebanese Army take control of southern Lebanon and the border crossings with Syria. Here again, the interconnection with Iran becomes clear. FRANCE, DURING the first days of the war in mid-July, was the leading proponent of sending a robust force, and even pledged to lead it. 0President Jacques Chirac discussed the possibility of sending 3,000-3,550 troops, and his interest in doing so was attributed to France's historical ties with and feeling of responsibility toward Lebanon. France administered Lebanon through a League of Nations mandate from 1920 to its independence in 1943, and Paris has always had a special interest in developments there. Chirac was also very close to assassinated Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri. But then the French got cold feet, and their robust commitment dropped this week to 200, although - following a wave of criticism - there are indications that this number will rise. Which raises the question: What happened? According to both European and Israeli diplomatic officials, there were a number of reasons behind France's abrupt about-face. One was the concern about Iran's reach. Israeli officials have been saying for months that among the European countries that have been negotiating with Iran over the nuclear issue - France, Britain and Germany - France has taken the most uncompromising and toughest stand. France is expected to vote for sanctions at the UN, and France, according to this line of reasoning, is worried that Iran could take its revenge not only on French soldiers patrolling southern Lebanon, but also on targets inside France itself. Ironically, however, just as France has been tough with Iran over the nukes, its leaders have been playing diplomatic footsie with Teheran. French Foreign Minister Phillippe Douste-Blazy characterized Iran last month as "a great country, a great people and a great civilization which is respected and which plays a stabilizing role in the region." And again on Sunday, in a radio interview, he said that Iran has "a role to play" in a political agreement in Lebanon. HOW CAN these two apparently contradictory tendencies - toughness on the nuclear issue, but a willingness to play the diplomacy game - be explained? First of all, said one European diplomat, they are not necessarily contradictory. "France is tickling the pride of the Iranians," he said. "It is saying to the Iranians: 'You could be someone if you would just accept the rules of the game and behave like grownups.'" The diplomat said that in France's view, the role Iran could play in Iran was simple, "to breathe down Syria's neck and keep it from plundering Lebanon, to keep it from sucking Lebanon's blood, as it has been doing for years." France's apparent willingness to let Iran play a role in Lebanon is also motivated by another factor - its intense dislike of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime, which Chirac holds responsible for the killing of Hariri. France does not want to see any role for Syria in Lebanon, and would prefer that Iran get points for reining in Hizbullah, rather than Syria. France was instrumental in promoting and passing UN Security Council 1559, with its call for Syria to leave Lebanon, and was also instrumental in the establishment of a commission of inquiry into Hariri's assassination. None of which, obviously has endeared the French to the Syrians, meaning that not only may Iran want to target the French because of their stand on the nuclear issue, Syria also has reasons to want to do the same because of Chirac's anti-Syrian positions. BUT THERE are also strong internal French reasons for France's back-peddling on the international force. France is going to presidential elections next year, and the prospect of French troops coming home in coffins from Lebanon will obviously not help the candidate of the government that sent the troops there in the first place. Didn't France realize all this before Chirac spoke of the international force in mid-July? Sure it did, said one Israeli official, but then the French thought - as did so many others - that Israel would succeed not only in striking Hizbullah a blow, but also in taking it out of commission. Sending thousands of troops to southern Lebanon when Hizbullah is decimated is one thing, but doing it when the troops might actually have to militarily engage Hizbullah is something else entirely. The prospects of this about-face for Europe, which demanded a cease-fire and an international force, would be devastating regarding its status as a player in the region, something it always aspires to be. Committing troops to a task that might not be easy, one European official said, would not only put Europe on the map in the Middle East, but show that it is not all talk. So, as French enthusiasm for the idea waxed, Italy's interest increased. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi spoke this week of taking France's place in the leadership of the force, and in contributing up to 3,500 soldiers. But this raises the obvious "why" question: Why would Italy want to take the risk the French were skittish about? First of all, Prodi, unlike Chirac, is just after an election, not before one, so he need not be as concerned about the immediate political ramifications of soldiers possibly killed in southern Lebanon. Secondly, Prodi - a former president of the European Commission - is keen on enhancing Italy's stature in the world, a stature that he feels it lost during the Silvio Berlusconi age. Berlusconi was widely perceived in the Arab world as not only pro-Bush, but also as unabashedly pro-Israel. Sending a force to Lebanon, something regimes like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia support, would boost the country's image in important parts of the Arab world. Furthermore, Italy has traditionally had good ties with Syria, and strong ones with Ian. Indeed, it is one of Iran's largest trading partners in the world. So Rome is less fearful than Paris of being the target of some kind of vengeance attack at either Iranian or Syrian behest. It is also interesting to note that Italian troops - along with the US and French soldiers - made up the bulk of the Multinational Force in Lebanon created in 1982 to oversee the withdrawal of Yasser Arafat and the PLO. Only Italian troops, however, were not attacked by suicide bombers that killed 241 US - and 58 French - soldiers in 1983. This is something that may have been on Prodi's mind when he decided to go down a path this week that the French were very reluctant to travel - a path that clearly extends to Iran.