An Embodiment of Iran’s Long Shadow: Missiles for Hezbollah - New York Times
PARIS, July 18 — Iran’s support for Hezbollah’s actions against Israel seems to have a twofold purpose: to deflect attention from Tehran’s impasse with the United States and five other nations over its nuclear program, and to further position itself as a powerful regional player.
“The Iranians are gambling that there won’t be a military attack against them,” said one senior European official who spoke on condition of anonymity, under diplomatic rules. “Iran is trying to say, ‘Nothing is possible without me.’ And for the moment, the nuclear issue is forgotten.”
Indeed, action on a resolution at the United Nations Security Council critical of Iran for failing to suspend its uranium enrichment activities is essentially is on hold because of the crisis in the Middle East.
Iran’s language is no harsher than past statements by its leaders against Israel, and the approach may fail miserably if Israel crushes Hezbollah. But Iran’s unconditional defense of the militia has convinced the United States and many European and Arab governments that Iran is fueling the crisis to project power — whether or not Iran directly inspired or approved Hezbollah’s actions against Israel in the first place.
On Tuesday, Iran made new threats against Israel. At a government-sanctioned demonstration in Tehran, Gholam Ali Haddad Adel, the speaker of Parliament, warned, “Israel’s northern cities are within the range of Hezbollah’s missiles, and no part of Israel will be safe.”
The crowd of nearly 2,000 demonstrators replied with chants of “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!”
As part of the drama of the day, demonstrators read a statement asking the government to help them join Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, Iran’s state-run television reported.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader and the country’s most powerful figure, said in a speech on Sunday that Israeli strikes in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories proved how “the presence of Zionists in the region is a satanic and cancerous presence and an infected tumor for the entire world of Islam.”
As President Bush and other world leaders struggled at a summit meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, to devise a plan to stop Hezbollah, Ayatollah Khamenei predicted it would fail. “The American president says Hezbollah should be disarmed,” he said in remarks carried on television, “but it will not happen.”
Even Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, who used his eight-year presidency to try to moderate Iran’s foreign policy, likened Hezbollah to “a shining sun that illuminates and warms the hearts of all Muslims and supporters of freedom in the world.”
In a letter to Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, on Sunday, Mr. Khatami, who heads the Institute for Dialogue among Civilizations and Cultures here, called the “Zionists’ shocking atrocities in Palestine and Lebanon” a sign of “their violent nature.”
Still, it was noteworthy that Mr. Khatami also implicitly urged restraint, warning of “the spread of catastrophe and scale of destruction in Palestine and Lebanon.”
Underscoring the heightened sense of Iran as a dangerous regional player, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain accused Iran on Tuesday of supporting Hezbollah with weapons that are “very similar if not identical to those used against British troops in Basra,” in Iraq. Mr. Blair also accused Syria of supporting Iran “in many different ways” and both countries of providing financial support.
Israel, the United States, the Europeans and many Arab states have long claimed that Hezbollah receives its weaponry from Iran, an assertion that many Iranian officials admit in private is true. The most significant recent change in Iranian support for Hezbollah is its transfer of longer-range rockets that can be fired into major Israeli cities, according to an analysis by Anthony H. Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
But officially, Iran denies providing Hezbollah with weaponry — denials that contribute to distrust of Iran by the outside world.
Asked Sunday about Israel’s claim that Iran supplied Hezbollah with missiles, Hamid-Reza Asefi, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Iran offers Lebanon and Syria “spiritual and humanitarian support.” He added: “It is not true that we have sent missiles. Hezbollah is capable enough.”
Even so, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ratcheted up the threats by pledging to support Syria if it comes under attack by Israel.
“If Israel commits another act of idiocy and attacks Syria, this will be the same as an aggression against the entire Islamic world and it will receive a stinging response,” Mr. Ahmadinejad was quoted by state-run television as telling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a telephone conversation last Thursday.
Both Iran and Syria have praised Hezbollah’s crossover into northern Israel and its capture of two Israeli soldiers, the event that set off the Israeli offensive in Lebanon.
Despite its heated oratory, Iran seems to be trying to position itself for a potential role in resolving the crisis over Lebanon. In Damascus on Monday, Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said a cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners would be a possible way forward in the Israeli-Lebanese conflict.
Speaking after a meeting with Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, Mr. Mottaki said there should be an “acceptable and fair” resolution, adding, “In fact, there can be a cease-fire followed by a prisoner swap.”
Even some of the most seasoned analysts of Iran’s backing for Hezbollah are restrained in their conclusions of Iran’s role in the recent crisis. “Iran will certainly benefit from Hezbollah strikes,” Mr. Cordesman wrote in his analysis. But, he added, “Until there are hard facts, Iran’s role in all this is a matter of speculation, and conspiracy theories are not facts or news.”