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Hard Questions, Tough Answer with Yossi Alpher - July 11, 2005

Q. What are the likely ramifications for Israel and the US re: Iran election of Islamist revolutionary president, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad? Q. How is Hizballah likely to react to positive changes in Lebanon?

Q. Iran has elected an Islamist revolutionary president, Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad. What are the likely ramifications for Israel and the United States?

A. The president of Iran is the highest ranking official in that country elected by universal suffrage, but he is not the real authority and decision-maker. The reins of power are in the hands of the supreme leader, Khamenei, a religious figure, and several groups of religious officials. They hand pick presidential candidates and exercise veto power over parliamentary and governmental decisions. So in this sense the identity of the president, whether "liberal" like the outgoing figure, Khatemi, or "revolutionary" like Ahmadinezhad, is not crucial to strategic policymaking in Iran.

But precisely because Ahmadinezhad is ideologically in tune with the real leadership, he is likely to be rewarded by them with additional authority. In any case, the harmony between the new president (the first in revolutionary Iran who is not a religious figure himself; he has a doctorate in engineering) and his religious mentors is almost certain to ensure that in the coming four years Iran will pursue radical regime aims more diligently than ever. These include Iran's military nuclear program, its support for terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizballah, and its efforts to influence the policies of the newly-emergent Shi'ite leadership in Iraq.

Ahmadinezhad takes great pride in his humble life-style. In this regard he presents a sharp contrast to his predecessors and particularly his ultimate rival in the run-off to this election, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a multi-millionaire. This is one explanation for his electoral popularity: he could appeal to millions of poor Iranians who are tired of corrupt officials allegedly enriching themselves at the people's expense. His television electioneering broadcasts contrasted his tiny flat in poor south Tehran with the sumptuous villas of his opponents in plush north Tehran. Another explanation for his popularity is that as mayor of Tehran and in previous regional administrative positions he proved himself a very efficient administrator.

It is striking to read and listen to the explanations of the election offered by Iranian commentators: they point out that Ahmadinezhad's electorate came from the poor rural population that has migrated to the industrial cities and feels disoriented and out of touch with traditional values. This is precisely the way support for Khomeini's overthrow of the Shah 26 years ago was explained! One can only conclude that the Islamic regime has done little to improve the lot of the poor since then (the population has doubled during the interval) and that, given a narrow choice of candidates, the majority chose the one who seemed most authentically in tune with the lower classes.

The electoral results also offer a penetrating commentary on the analysis and interpretation of things Iranian that most people in the West hear from westernized and western-educated Iranian scholars. I was at a track II meeting of Arab, Israeli, Iranian and Turkish scholars on the day of the first round of Iran's presidential elections in mid-June. The Iranians, all first-rate scholars, offered learned commentary on the eight candidates, pointing out who they thought would reach the second, run-off round. Not one of them mentioned Ahmadinezhad; he was not on their radar screen. A week later it emerged that they were desperately out of touch with the political realities of their own country.

So, it seems, were American observers. While official Washington seemed less taken aback by the election than Europe, noting that in any case the Iranian president does not make policy on strategic issues that concern the West, the choice of Ahmadinezhad certainly did not reflect the administration's neo-con view of the way the Middle East works. A couple of weeks before the Iranian elections I mentioned to a senior American official who directs policy efforts toward democratization in the Middle East that the Iranians were happy with US policy in places like Iraq and Lebanon because it was enfranchising and empowering Shi'ites--perhaps the most ambitious regional goal of revolutionary Iran and one that Khomeini and his successors had thus far failed to accomplish.

"This will definitely not serve Iranian interests," came the reply. "Shi'ite empowerment in Iraq is through democratic means. This sends a message to Iranians that they, too, can insist on real democracy. This will undermine the regime in Tehran. The direction of cultural-political influence in this regard is from west to east, not east to west."

The election of Ahmadinezhad, a radical revolutionary statement if ever there was one, is one form of Iran's reply to the American official's misreading of the regional ramifications of democratization and Shi'ite empowerment in Iraq. Another is the agreement reportedly signed by Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government a few days ago, under the nose of the US occupying force, for Iran to help train Iraq's nascent army. Iran under Ahmadinezhad is likely to seek with redoubled energy to subvert the American objective of a moderate, pro-western Iraq.

Ahmadinezhad is a product of Iran's post-revolutionary military-intelligence establishment. He served in two of its key institutions, the Revolutionary Guards (Pasdaran) and the militant Basij. He takes credit for having run intelligence and subversion operations in Iraqi Kurdistan during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), and is accused of involvement in the assassination of a dissident Iraqi Kurd in Vienna in the late 1980s and possibly of participation in the US embassy takeover in 1980. His election was masterminded by the military-intelligence establishment and he can be expected to remain loyal to its subversive and terrorist aims.

Thus his election reinforces the more radical aspects of Iranian policy that concern Israel: the nuclear project, and support for Hizballah and Palestinian terrorist groups.

Q. Apropos Hizballah, if developments in Lebanon continue to be positive and a new government seeks to restrain that movement's aggressive approach toward Israel, how is Hizballah likely to react?

A. The winners in Lebanon's recent election, anti-Syrian Sunni, Druze and Christian elements, have not yet formed a government. One of the issues they know the government will have to confront is the next phase in implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559. Now that Syrian forces have left the country in accordance with that resolution, the order of business it predicates is the disarming of Hizballah (and Palestinian militias in refugee camps) and the deployment of Lebanon's army to the country's southern border with Israel.

Hizballah already signaled its concern with this possible direction of events a couple of weeks ago by heating up the border with Israel at the Sheba Farms area. The winners of the Lebanese election, for their part, state reassuringly that everything must be done through consultation and consensus with Hizballah. The Shi'ite movement is seen by and large by Lebanese as having played a positive role in forcing Israel to withdraw from Lebanese territory five years ago, and it commands a disciplined militia that could be a match for the tiny multi-sectarian Lebanese army.

Hizballah's actions thus far have already pointed to its use of Sheba Farms as a bargaining card. The problem is that even most Lebanese don't buy the argument that, as occupied Lebanese territory, the Sheba Farms area is a valid casus belli for Lebanon. The UN recognized it as Syrian territory--hence subject to negotiations between Israel and Syria, not Lebanon--when Israel pulled out of Lebanon in May 2000. Moreover, efforts are apparently being made by the US and others to broker a deal whereby Israel withdraws from Sheba (which has no particular strategic importance), Syria officially agrees to turn the territory over to Lebanon, and Lebanese military forces occupy it. This of course would require a successful effort by the new Lebanese government to enforce its mandate in the south.

If all that Hizballah wanted was the "return" of the Sheba Farms, such a maneuver--which ostensibly serves both Lebanese and Israeli interests--might be useful. But Hizballah fears that, once disarmed and "civilianized", it will lose much of its current influence. In particular, Iranian and Syrian military backing, which takes the form of Iranian weapons shipments via Syria and military training in Lebanon by Iranian Revolutionary Guards, would under these circumstances become irrelevant as a "force-multiplier" for the Lebanese Shi'ites within the context of Lebanese politics.

Hence Hizballah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah frequently argues in his speeches that Israel is occupying additional Lebanese territory beyond Sheba: seven Shi'ite villages just south of the international border that were abandoned in 1948, and whose original residents and their descendants live in Lebanon. Only the return of these villages, i.e., only Israeli agreement to move its UN-approved international border with Lebanon two or three kilometers south and (near Kiryat Shmonah) east, argues Nasrallah, can pave the way for the conclusion of Hizballah's armed struggle.

The story of the seven villages says a lot about the potential for discord in Shi'ite-Palestinian relations in Lebanon. Their residents were the only Shi'ite Muslim Arabs in Mandatory Palestine. All told, some 20 villages-the remainder populated by Sunni Muslim and Christian Arabs-that were originally assigned to Lebanon in the famous Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France of 1921, ultimately found themselves in the territory of British mandatory Palestine when, in 1922, the British and French completed their survey of the territory and laid down border markers. When Israel was born on this territory in 1948, the residents of all 20 fled to Lebanon. In 1994 Hizballah and Amal, the other Lebanese Shi'ite movement, used their political clout to obtain Lebanese citizenship for the Shi'ite refugees, whereas the Sunnis and the Christians remain stateless Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

Nasrallah has never mentioned the need to restore the 13 deserted non-Shi'ite villages to Lebanese sovereignty--only the seven Shi'ite villages. His motives appear to be fairly transparent: create yet another excuse for Hizballah to avoid laying down its arms and integrating politically into the Lebanese national fabric, while pandering to his own Lebanese Shi'ite constituency. Not only is his demand that Israel restore the land of the seven villages to Lebanon a complete non-starter. Even if, theoretically, Israel were to comply with his demand, it is obvious that he would then come up with yet another condition that justifies Hizballah's ongoing existence as an armed organization. This, in turn, would continue to prevent the Lebanese government from obtaining a monopoly over the exercise of force--a key test of real sovereignty.

Precisely because Nasrallah's entire "seven villages" project is an obvious provocation for Israel, the UN, and the US, we can expect him to resist the efforts of the next Lebanese government to disarm his movement and replace it with Lebanese army forces deployed along Israel's borders. And we can expect Iran, together with Syria--no longer a military occupier, but still a neighbor to be reckoned with--to back him up.

This could be the prelude to, and excuse for, more Hizballah-instigated violence in Israel's north.