ORONO, MAINE; AND BOSTON
President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have responded to the latest unraveling of Middle East stability with condemnations of Hizbullah. Wan calls for restraint have been accompanied with accusations that the Lebanese Shiite party and militia is merely the frontman for Iran and Syria. Dr. Rice suggests that we have nothing to talk about with these "rogue" states. We argue that this latter conclusion is incorrect.
To suggest that Hizbullah kidnapped the Israeli soldiers on the orders of Tehran and Damascus is to grossly oversimplify a strong strategic relationship between Hizbullah, Syria, and Iran. While there is certainly a shared geopolitical framework among the three, operational decisions are typically made by Hizbullah. In fact, the group has become increasingly autonomous since its triumph in 2000, when it basically forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon.
The latest Hizbullah operation – in which eight Israeli soldiers were killed and two wounded – profoundly embarrassed the vaunted Israeli army. While it may have been tactically brilliant, it was clearly a strategic miscalculation. The action even surprised the Iranian leadership whose anti-Israel rhetoric often obscures a nuanced relationship with the group. Pragmatism, not ideology, has been the secret to Iranian success in Lebanon.
While Shiite supporters of Hizbullah celebrated the nabbing of Israeli soldiers, many others, including some Shiites, are angry that Hizbullah provided Israel an excuse to wreak havoc in their country, where more than 200 civilians have already been killed. Iran is now seeing decades of constructive engagement with various political parties in Lebanon endangered by this miscalculation.
Hizbullah is a major foreign policy success for the clerics in Iran. For more than 20 years, with Iran's aid, Hizbullah built an infrastructure of hospitals, aid organizations, media, and construction companies. This has been key to Hizbullah's evolving success as a political party and is the furthest reach of Iranian influence within an Arab Shiite group.