Face-to-face talks with Iran may be the only way now to rein in Hezbollah. But will George W. Bush, the man who branded Iran part of the 'Axis of Evil,' ever agree to that? It seems unlikely.


Make no mistake, George W. Bush will not be remembered as one of history’s more eloquent statesmen. He’s overly fond of folksy talk, prone to making up words, and a frequent bumbler with syntax. Every once in a while, however, he demonstrates an admirable capacity to put complex problems into terms anyone can understand.

With Hezbollah guerrillas launching rockets at Israeli cities, the Jewish state responding by striking targets all over Lebanon, and desperate civilians—including an estimated 50,000 Canadian citizens—trying to flee the chaos, most people’s heads are filled with visions of hell and handbaskets. But Bush, be-


tween bites of a buttered roll at a G8 luncheon in St. Petersburg this week, shared his frank assessment with British PM Tony Blair and the eavesdropping microphones of the world’s press. “See the irony is that what they [the UN] need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.” True, it’s not the kind of trenchant analysis that’s likely to win you an ‘A’ on a term paper (least of all for his Alanis Morissette-

like misapprehension of irony), but Bush’s logic is pretty sound. The Islamic terror group’s kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers last week— the spark for a still-escalating cycle of attacks and retaliation—almost certainly had the blessing of Hezbollah’s key patrons, Syria and Iran. And although Bashar Assad’s influence over Lebanese affairs has lessened since last year’s “Cedar Revolution” chased his troops back home, the Syrian president still casts a big shadow over his southern neighbour. Recognizing the solution is no guarantee of success, however. As Bush and Blair have learned in Iraq, problems are easy to sniff out in Mideast politics; it’s more difficult to avoid stepping in them.

The speed with which a long-simmering conflict suddenly went to full boil last week is a prime example. Lebanon’s transformation from neighbourhood doormat to stable democracy seemed to be well underway. The country had been rebuilt after decades of civil war, investment was flowing, and the end of foreign occupation presented an opportunity for real political reform. Domestic and international pressure to disarm Hezbollah—the UN Security Council passed a resolution in 2004—was growing. (The militant group has an estimated 600 fulltime fighters, but can draw on reserves of 3,000 to 4,000 well-trained veterans.) Even the terror organization’s boasts (echoed by warnings from the Israeli Defense Forces) that it had obtained longer-range missiles, capable of hitting deep into Israeli territory, hadn’t significantly altered tensions along the border. It was a tepid conflict; occasional rocket barrages from the guerrillas, met with heavy Israeli bombardments, followed by long periods of calm.

And since the IDF completed its pullout of southern Lebanon after almost 20 years of occupation in 2000, the Israeli government seemed to have little interest in revisiting the war, no matter what the provocation. In October 2000, Hezbollah staged a similar raid, ambushing three soldiers. They were only returned—in body bags—in January 2004, after Israel released a large number of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners. A similar abduction attempt last November in the western Galilee valley was foiled by IDF paratroopers.

Why was it so different this time? Prime Minister Stephen Harper called Israel’s ferocious air assault on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure-roads, bridges, power plants—a “measured” response, but few in the world community agree. And even as Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, vowed an all-out war with Israel, there were few signs that his organization had been preparing for such a conflict. “I think Hezbollah was surprised by the Israeli response. I think they thought it would be minimal,” says Eyal Zisser, a Lebanon specialist with the Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. The militia’s primary motivation in staging the kidnapping appeared to be to try to take some pressure off Hamas. (Hezbollah, which is Shia, and Hamas, a Sunni organization, are not natural allies, but have found common cause in their hatred of Israel. As the old Arab proverb goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.) The Palestinian militant group snatched another Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, on June 25, and Israel had been pounding its Gaza stronghold in an effort to secure his release for more than three weeks. What Hezbollah may not have fully comprehended is the changed political dynamics

within Israel. There was widespread public support for the attempt to retrieve Shalit, but the government had begun to look ineffectual as the crisis dragged on. Exacerbating matters was the fact that neither Prime Minister Ehud Olmert or his rookie defence minister, Amir Peretz, have a military background—and unfavourable comparisons were being drawn with past leaders. “This is a new government, a new leader, and Olmert is not as strong as Ariel Sharon was,” notes Zis ment that may well be compe overwhelming response.

The rapid pace of change in the region may also have stale-dated President Bush’s preferred solution. There is no question that Hezbollah needs, at a minimum,

Syria’s tacit permission to operate in Lebanon, but the group marches to its own tune. Daniel Byman, the author of Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism, and an assistant professor at Georgetown University, says Hezbollah probably informed Damascus of its general intentions as a courtesy, but it would be unlikely to provide details. The relationship between Hezbollah and Syria is more of a rivalry than a friendship; their co-operation is born out of a shared desire to keep Lebanon on shaky political ground—a situation that has long favoured both their interests. But the Syrian position in Lebanon has weakened significantly since last summer’s popular uprising. And although Syria still has enough sway to make things uncomfortable for Hezbollah if it chooses, there would seem to be a lot more to lose than gain in bringing the group to heel. Hezbollah enjoys widespread support on the streets of Syria and the rest of the Arab world for its steadfast resistance to Israel. “It would be hard for Syria to turn its back on them,” says Byman. “Hezbollah has increasingly become the tail that wags the dog in this relationship.”

A better bet for reining in Hezbollah is turning to the government of Iran—but that’s clearly an unpalatable option for Bush. Tehran has been a sponsor of the group since its inception in the early 1980s, and provides as much as $100 million a year in funding for its activities. Iran is also the group’s major source of arms (many observers believe the new missiles are Iranian-made) and sends

military advisers to help train guerrillas. And the links between the two go even deeper, with many of Hezbollah’s high-ranking clerics having studied alongside their Iranian counterparts in the holy city of Qom.

Israel’s Olmert and others are pointing to the timing of Hezbollah’s raid—just days before possible Western action against Iran was due to be discussed at the G8 summitas proof that Tehran is calling the shots in

Lebanon. As with the Syrian relationship, however, the reality is probably more nuanced. As Hezbollah has become more involved in Lebanon’s electoral politics over the last few years, it has forged its own distinct agenda. But that doesn’t mean that the Iranians were unhappy to see their former proxies stir the pot.

Vali Nasr, a professor of politics at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., believes that Tehran is delivering a rather explicit warning to the Bush administration. “The message is that they are important to the U.S. in multiple arenas,” he says. “That they have the capacity to destabilize not just Iraq, but other parts of the Arab world.” The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad and the Taliban in Afghanistan—both traditional Iranian nemeses—has left a vacuum that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is more than eager to

fill. “Iran is on the rise as a regional power, economically, politically, and with its nuclear ambitions,” says Nasr.

The preferred American foreign policy option of isolating Iran and dismissing it as a rogue state led by a madman may no longer be workable. Efforts to force Tehran to the negotiating table to talk about its nuclear program may have to be abandoned in favour of more direct diplomacy, and perhaps even

face-to-face talks with the U.S.—something successive American administrations have avoided for more than a quarter-century. “The Iranians have a strategic vision, they have a road map, and they have proven to be very adept at carrying out their game plan,” says Nasr. “We shouldn’t drink our own Kool-Aid and fall into the trap of dismissing them as crazy.” If only Richard Nixon could go to China, it could well be that only the man who branded Iran part of the “Axis of Evil” can open up talks with Tehran. But there’s little evidence of any momentum for such a drastic policy change right now—Bush seems more sympathetic to those who want to forcibly topple Ahmadinejad’s regime, than those who want to engage it in dialogue. But if the conflict in Lebanon continues to worsen, it could yet prove to be the tipping point in the relationship.

Iran’s growing influence in the region has already sparked at least one major paradigm shift, with spooked Arab leaders suddenly seeing Tehran and its allies in a whole new


light. Following an emergency meeting of the Arab League in Cairo on July 16 to discuss the Lebanese crisis, several foreign ministers took the extraordinary step of directly criticizing Hezbollah’s actions, essentially siding with Israel in the dispute. “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot simply accept them,” said Saudi Arabia’s Prince Saud al-Faisal. His strong words were echoed by his colleagues from Jordan and Egypt.

Judith Kipper, a Mideast scholar with the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, says fear that the instability in Iraq, Palestine and now Lebanon could spread is creating a grow-

ing divide in the region.

“It’s the radical Iran-SyriaHezbollah front versus the larger Arab world who are against violence and in favour of negotiations,” she says. And while the breakdown of traditional Arab solidarity around issues like Israel might seem like a positive development on the surface, in the long run it will only make it more difficult to find solutions to the region’s growing crises.

Kipper fixes the blame squarely on the Bush administration and its adventures in Iraq. “Iraq is a catastrophe for the region,” she says. “It should have been foreseen, could have been foreseen, and was seen by a lot of people, but not by the decision-makers, and still not to this day.” One of the direct consequences of the war has been the steady erosion of American influence in the region. “We

can’t get anybody to do what we want these days,” says Kipper. The most powerful nation in the history of the world can still enforce its views militarily, but it’s rapidly running out of friends and allies.

It already seems clear that any solution to the Lebanese crisis will require the intervention of a multinational organization like the UN, G8 or NATO. Israel is warning that it is prepared to keep up its military campaign for weeks, and has set the unconditional release of the soldiers, and the deployment of troops— Lebanese or foreign—along the frontier as its minimum threshold for a ceasefire. And Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni has tacidy endorsed proposals by Tony Blair and UN Sec-




retary-General Kofi Annan for an international stabilization force.

But that may not be enough to placate Israeli hawks, who note that the current force of 2,000 UN observers along the border has done little to enforce the peace. During a surprise visit to Haifa on Tuesday, Prime Minister Olmert went further, saying Israel requires that UN Resolution 1559, calling for Hezbollah’s disarmament, be enforced before he will agree to negotiations. And he went out of his way to pour cold water on the latest peacekeeping scheme. “It’s a good headline, but our experience shows that nothing stands behind it,” he told reporters. “I want to be cautious on this subject, and it seems

to me that it is premature to discuss it.”

In coming weeks, Olmert may well be busy dealing with not just the Lebanese conflict, but its internal Israeli fallout as well. The events of the last month have put his whole political program in jeopardy. A year after the pullout from Gaza, the idea of dismantling more settlements in the West Bank, and further “disengaging” from the Palestinians, suddenly appears foolhardy. Shlomo Brom, a former chief of strategic planning for the IDF and security adviser to the prime minister, goes even further, declaring the Israeli government’s unilateral drive for a two-state solution dead. The West Bank is too close to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to risk Palestinian militants aping their colleagues in Gaza and Lebanon. “We cannot afford a situation in which rockets are landing once a day or even twice a week in our cities,” he ■ says. “And the only way you

can prevent that is by being there militarily.”

In the absence of a more permanent negotiated solution to the crisis, Israeli forces are well-equipped to continue their air raids and forays into Lebanon for the foreseeable future. The last time the IDF launched a major campaign against Hezbollah—Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996—the bombing raids lasted 17 days and claimed the lives of 150 Lebanese civilians. In 1993, Operation Accountability lasted a week, killed 118, and sent a tide of close to 300,000 refugees flooding into Beirut.

It is undoubtedly cold comfort to those Canadians with relatives caught up in the conflict, but as Brom notes, the definition of normal is fairly elastic in a region that has been in a semi-permanent state of war since 1948. “There are situations that do not have a solution. All you can do is contain them, and maintain things as stable as possible,” he says from his Tel Aviv home. “When you are in this type of conflict, from time to time there is an outbreak of violence. And between the violence you live the way you always do.” It’s nice to think that this, the latest in a long line of crises, might finally provide an opportunity for meaningful change. But no matter what side of the Israeli border you live on, hope is in dangerously short supply. M