Iran plays big role in Lebanon, evoking complaints
SAKSAKIYEH, Lebanon: The Iranian engineer peered through the huge hole in the bridge. He saw a thick concrete column below had shifted when the bridge was hit during last summerĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s Israeli bombardment of LebanonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s southern coastal highway.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“We have to bring down the entire structure and build from scratch,Ă˘â‚¬Âť said the engineer, Hussam Khoshnevis, who was sent by President Mahmoud AhmadinjadĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s office to oversee IranĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s extensive reconstruction programme in Lebanon following the devastating 34-daywar between the Lebanese militia Hizbullah and Israel.
The bridge outside the village of Saksakiyeh, south of the port city of Sidon, is one of 27 bridges that Iran is repairing. Iran is one of many nations helping Lebanon recover. But the close ties between the predominantly Shia Muslim country and Hizbullah, the militant Shia political movement whose name means Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“Party of God,Ă˘â‚¬Âť has alarmed the US-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Saniora and his allies.
Lebanese have long complained that international conflicts always play out in their country, and they argue that outside meddling in this summerĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s war and the current political crisis have essentially turned the latest discord in Lebanon into part of the Washington vs. Tehran battle. The government argues that Tehran engineered the current crisis that has taken the country to the brink of civil war. Charges of IranĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s covert role are lent weight by reports from Tehran that Iranian leaders are unhappy that the protests got out of control turning deadly and have asked Hizbullah to cool the situation.
Iran watchers say that since the end of the war, IranĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s political influence has been backed up by the biggest donation the Iranian government has made to Hizbullah an estimated $1.2 billion, compared to under $100 million given the group in a typical year.
Similarly, last summerĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s war drew SanioraĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s government dramatically closer to the United States. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Beirut and called Saniora an ally. Hizbullah and Iran strongly believe as do many Lebanese that SanioraĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s government makes its decisions in consultation with US Ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, who is known for his almost daily visits to pro-government leaders. The United States announced $770 million in new US aid, more than three times the Bush administrationĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s previous commitment, during JanuaryĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s international donor conference in Paris. Iran, however, has already gained thanks from Lebanese Shias, for its contributions immediately after the war, including the $300 million that Hizbullah paid within days of the Aug 14 cease-fire to families that lost homes in IsraelĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s bombardment.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“The Zionist enemy destroys and IranĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s Islamic Republic builds,Ă˘â‚¬Âť reads a banner near bombed out buildings in a Shia suburb of the capital Beirut. Similar banners are seen in southern Shia villages devastated in the war.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“The only country thatĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s sincere and kind to us is Iran,Ă˘â‚¬Âť said Sheik Qassem Hammadi, a Hizbullah cleric in Aitaroun, a heavily damaged village near IsraelĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s border where Iran installed large generators to provide electricity immediately after the war. Not all Lebanese are so grateful for IranĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s help. Novelist and anthropologist Iman Humaydan, a member of the Druse sect, says she fears TehranĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s influence could replace LebanonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s cosmopolitan culture with conservative Islam. She said she would accept AmericaĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s influence before IranĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s, though she would prefer to be free of both.
Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“The Iranian regime is based on religion. America ... doesnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t scare me as much,Ă˘â‚¬Âť Humaydan said. Ă˘â‚¬Ĺ“America hasnĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t set up institutions in Lebanon that would affect the fabric of society.Ă˘â‚¬Âť
IranĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s generosity does have a sectarian side one aim is to strengthen LebanonĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s downtrodden Shiite community. But it may be reluctant to push Islamic influence too far, having learned from failed efforts by Hizbullah how difficult it would be to impose Islamic laws on a country with a variety of faiths and a history of tolerance. The Iranian push to strengthen Hizbullah, as a political party and a well-armed militia on IsraelĂ˘â‚¬â„˘s doorstep, would make Tehran a force in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and broaden its influence in the Middle East. As a regional power, Iran would be better able to help its only Arab ally, Syria now isolated over accusations it arranged the assassination of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri two years ago and to counter US and European pressure over its controversial nuclear programme. But things havenĂ˘â‚¬â„˘t been going as Iran hoped.