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Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
The political and paramilitary group known as Hezbollah has been a major player in Lebanon and across the Middle East for 30 years. The U.S. considers it to be a terrorist organization. Now the group has extended its reach to this hemisphere. Iran and Syria are its key allies. With the Assad regime teetering in Damascus, and Iran bracing for a Mideast war, Hezbollah is at the center of attention as never before. Guest host Tom Gjelten and his guests talk about the military and political roles of Hezbollah in the Middle East and beyond – and why U.S. officials are watching the group so closely.
- Matthew Levitt Senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, and author of a forthcoming book tentatively titled "Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God."
- Kim Ghattas State Department correspondent for the BBC; author of a forthcoming book on Hillary Clinton during her years as Secretary of State.
- Shibley Telhami Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of the forthcoming book, "The Peace Puzzle: America's Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace 1989-2011."
- Paul Salem Director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. She's off today. The Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah is getting a lot of attention these days among U.S. security officials. Its strategic allies are Syria and Iran. With those two regimes facing such uncertain futures, Hezbollah itself has a lot at stake, and it's destined to play a key role in the coming months in the Middle East and beyond.
MR. TOM GJELTENJoining me in the studio to talk about Hezbollah in the Middle East and the world: Matthew Levitt of The Washington Institute, Kim Ghattas of the BBC and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland and the Brookings Institution. You can join the conversation with your own thoughts and questions about Hezbollah. Call us at 1-800-433-8850. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And, of course, you can join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning all.
MS. KIM GHATTASGood morning. Thanks for having us.
PROF. SHIBLEY TELHAMIGood morning.
MR. MATTHEW LEVITTGood morning.
GJELTENWell, Matt, last week, I was speaking with a U.S. intelligence official who's been focused for the last 10 years on Iraq, Afghanistan and al-Qaida, and he told me that these days he's focused almost exclusively on Hezbollah. Can you explain why that might be?
LEVITTWell, for obvious reasons, there's been a tremendous focus on al-Qaida and its affiliates and the wannabes and followers for a long time now. But over the past couple of years, there's been a real uptick in terrorism and activities by Hezbollah, by Iran and its agents, and this has officials very, very concerned. We've had recent plots from Azerbaijan to Cyprus and now potentially Bulgaria.
LEVITTWe've had this shadow war between the West and Iran's sticky bombs for sticky bombs and viruses attacking the nuclear program, et cetera, and suddenly people are very, very concerned. It's not just this uptick in their national violence but it's also the fact that Hezbollah has been accused by the U.N., the special tribunal for Lebanon being behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
LEVITTThis challenge as Hezbollah's core identity as being something that is Lebanese-first and maybe Panjshir or pro-Iranian second or third because here you have Shia Hezbollah being accused of targeting the Sunni, Rafic Hariri. And you have Hezbollah as a proxy of Iran in a moment when Iran and the West are really at each other's throat over the nuclear programs. There's a lot going on.
GJELTENYeah. And, Matt, did -- is it true that Hezbollah, during these last 10 years when al-Qaida was the focus of the United States and its allies, is it true that Hezbollah sort of deliberately played a kind of a lower profile or lowered its profile?
LEVITTAbsolutely. On the one hand, Hezbollah was very keen not be caught in the crosshairs of what was once called the War on Terrorism. On the flip side, U.S. intelligence officials now publicly and for a long time privately, have described a changing relationship between Hezbollah and Iran since 9/11. I think it's telling that they don't point to this change happening after the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah or after the assassination of Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah's chief of external operations, in February '08.
LEVITTThe head of the National Counterterrorism Center has not testified publicly that since 9/11, they have seen what might've been traditionally a sponsor-proxy relationship shift into what they describe as a strategic relationship.
GJELTENKim Ghattas, I'm sure that for all Americans now, al-Qaida -- they all -- everyone knows what al-Qaida is. But my guess is that a lot of people still are not exactly sure who Hezbollah is. You were born in Lebanon. Tell us a little bit about from sort of the Lebanese perspective who is Hezbollah, how did they arise and what do they stand for, what do they mean.
GHATTASWell, there are many perspectives in Lebanon about every single issue on this planet. It's a very diverse country, and there are many perspectives in Lebanon about what Hezbollah is, who they represent and what they're doing. Or perhaps I should say many different visions of, you know, who this group is and whether they represent something that is truly Lebanese for all Lebanese. Hezbollah was founded by a small group of Lebanese, Shiite clerics, in the aftermath of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 to fight that invasion and subsequent occupation of South Lebanon.
GHATTASThey have direct help from Iran. They were inspired by the Shiite revolution in Iran of 1979. And they grew over the years from a militant radical group fighting the Israeli occupation in South Lebanon and very much seen as a resistance movement not only against Israel but also against what was seen by many in Lebanon as America's imperial designs in Lebanon. Over time, they developed into a political and social movement as well.
GHATTASAnd that's where they draw a lot of support within the Shiite community because they provide a lot of services that the state, a very fractured state in Lebanon is unable to provide, from schooling to garbage collection to hospital services for -- especially the Shiite community which has historically been underrepresented the -- they're the downtrodden of Lebanon. So Hezbollah has given that community a voice.
GHATTASNow, Hezbollah's gone through several periods. And from 1982 until 2000, I think that most Lebanese, even throughout the civil war, would have seen them as a resistance movement because Israel was occupying South Lebanon. But after 2000 when Israel withdrew and Hezbollah got a lot of credit from that, including from the Christian community, then things started to change because Hezbollah insisted on keeping its weapons. And that's when a lot of divisions started appearing about, you know, how do the Lebanese perceive this movement which has essentially become a state within a state.
GJELTENA state within a state. What is its relationship now to the Lebanese government?
GHATTASWell, in the beginning of 2001, Hezbollah, for the first time, fully entered politics, government politics. Up until then, they had participated in parliamentary elections. They had members of parliament, but they had not formed a government yet. In 2011, in January or February, they brought down the government of Saad Hariri, the son of the assassinated former prime minister. And with their allies, they became a dominant force in the government even though they only have a small number of portfolios.
GHATTASSo with their allies including Christian members of government, they formed the dominant force, and they have a veto power, in essence, over any decision taken in Lebanon.
GJELTENShibley Telhami, outside of Lebanon, what does Hezbollah mean? I mean, this is -- as Kim said, this is a group that has lead the resistance against Israel, which certainly is a cause that is popular outside, and Hezbollah has had ties to Iran and Syria. So what is the importance of Hezbollah outside Lebanon?
TELHAMIA really good question. But just -- first, let me just comment on within Lebanon. I think Kim is, of course, right. There are diversity of use on Hezbollah within Lebanon. But the numbers are on their side. I mean, don't forget that. I mean, their -- the Shia are over 40 percent of the population. The Christians are divided. Some of them support Hezbollah, and a minority of Sunnis and Druze as well. So the numbers are on their side.
TELHAMII mean, let's not get the -- get this, you know, mistake here to think that they are minority somehow manipulating there. The numbers are on their side. Outside, it is a fascinating story because clearly if there's any crisis for Nasrallah particularly as a leader of Hezbollah, and I think we should really...
GJELTENHassan Nasrallah is the leader.
TELHAMIHassan Nasrallah is a leader of Hezbollah, and I think we have to understand that it's not just Hezbollah. It's also Nasrallah. Now, here is why I say that. I mean, obviously Hezbollah is a very effective organization, has managed to get support not only internally but externally. But Nasrallah, I would argue, is probably the most charismatic Arab leader since Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt who died in 1970. He is brilliant, strategically and tactically. His style of speech is extraordinary.
TELHAMII listen to almost all of his speeches including last Friday because I find them very enlightening 'cause there is always messages. Everything is calculated. You can figure out what he is trying to do, what message he's trying to do, what is his audience. And there is no question in my mind that beyond seeing himself as a Lebanese national which is part of the legitimacy he tries to establish, he also portrays himself as an Arab nationalist and an Islamist as well.
TELHAMIAnd he did manage to capture Arab's imagination even despite the Sunni-Shiite divide. And how do we know that? Well, let me give you an example. Right after the 2006 war, a war he seemed to have been effective against Israel, we conducted public opinion polls. In mostly Sunni Arab countries -- Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates -- he was by far the most popular Arab leader in -- actually, world leader, not Arab leader, world leader.
TELHAMIHe was identified the single most -- in 2007, 2008 when there was a Lebanese crisis, we had a Sunni-led government essentially fighting against a Hezbollah and its allies, Hezbollah being accused of assassinating Rafic Hariri. And then we pull people in the Sunni Arab world as to who did they -- who did they side with, the Sunni-led government or the opposition. More people sided with Hezbollah.
TELHAMIThat tells you how he was able to use the Arab-Israeli prism for which he basically portrays himself as one of the few people who can stand up to Israel, has trump almost everything else. So his legitimacy and credibility has been strong. However, he's been under assault particularly since the Arab Spring, the Arab uprisings, the Arab awakening.
GJELTENBecause he's allied, for example, with the Assad regime in Syria, which is not popular among...
TELHAMIEspecially that. I would argue that the Assad crisis has been the most serious legitimacy crisis for him. You know, he did have the crisis with Rafic Hariri, that was a very difficult one to manage, and he managed to sort of, you know, survive that. Now, this is a serious one. But don't overestimate that and here's why. I think he lost support amongst Sunni Arabs for sure over Syria. Ninety percent of Arabs really favor the rebels against the Syrian regime, no doubt.
TELHAMIAnd, of course, you could see the atrocities. But even in 2011, in October 2011, the public opinion poll, Nasrallah was still the number two most popular leader in the Arab world after the prime minister of Turkey, Erdogan. So don't underestimate his importance and his influence in the Arab world.
GJELTENShibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He's also a co-author of the forthcoming book "The Peace Puzzle: America's Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace 1989-2011." We're gonna be taking a short break here.
TELHAMIWhen we come back, we're gonna be talking about the predicament that Hezbollah is in now, the point that Shibley Telhami just made with respect to the Arab Spring, and whether this is going to threaten the legitimacy and the standing of Hezbollah in the broader Middle East. We're gonna be talking to Paul Salem who's director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. So we'll have a perspective from Lebanon. And then we'll be taking your calls, 1-800-433-8850, or email us at email@example.com. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And our focus today is Hezbollah, the organization in Lebanon that has played such an important role there and across the Middle East and now is playing an increasingly important role even here in the Western Hemisphere. You can join our conversation by calling us at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join us on Facebook or Twitter.
GJELTENBut before I go back to my guests and to our callers, I want to welcome Paul Salem to our program. Paul is director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. Thanks for joining us, Paul.
MR. PAUL SALEMThank you, Tom, and greetings to your guests.
GJELTENYeah. So just before the break, Shibley Telhami was making the point that the Arab Spring and in particular the predicament of the Assad regime in Syria is raising a real existential challenge for Hezbollah. How do you see Hezbollah's situation right now in Lebanon with respect in particular to the uprising in Syria, and what kind of pressure that has put on Hezbollah as a backer of the Assad regime?
SALEMWell, first of all, I would separate a bit between its popularity in the Arab world, which indeed a couple of years ago was extremely, extremely high and has suffered definitely due to its support of the Assad regime that issue of popularity and its profile is one thing. The issue of the existential or strategic threat that it faces is another. Obviously, Hezbollah is an important player in Lebanon, but more importantly, it is part of a very powerful axis which stretched from Iran through Syria partly through Baghdad and Beirut.
SALEMAnd the link in Damascus is obviously under threat now. Now, existentially, the only real threat that could threaten or dislodge or weaken Hezbollah would come from Israel. It cannot come internally from Lebanon. I doubt that it can come from the post-Assad, a very weak, probably very divided Syria, which would, you know, result after the fall of an Assad regime. So Hezbollah still has its strategic fights and worries focused on Israel.
SALEMDefinitely, it support of the Assad regime has lost a lot of popularity in the Arab and Islamic Sunni street or Sunni public opinion, but it's still has almost all of its strategic heads in that axis of resistance, which was Iran and Syria. Its options if the Assad regime collapses are to hunker down and stay put in Lebanon, not to aggravate in Israeli assault. They would still have all of their weaponry and all their deployment in Lebanon.
SALEMIn fact, then they would help that even if the Assad regime leave its control of Damascus so that it could maintain control of other parts of Syria and through those other parts of Iran, you know, parts of Iraq still be able to maintain some kind of link to Iran.
GJELTENPaul, could you bring us to up to date on what involvement Hezbollah actually has right now in the Syria uprising? Of course, there have been these kidnappings there in Lebanon and Beirut, in the Bekaa Valley in recent days, and I'm curious about what your view of Hezbollah's involvement or attachment to those kidnappings are. Is Hezbollah at work inside Syria on behalf of the Assad regime?
SALEMWell, of course, it's hard to be sure of, you know, the reality with what's going on, but we tend to most observers and analysts here in any period. But certainly, the Iranians are very closely involved with the Syrian regime. Of course, they have been allies for many decades, and that, you know, Iranian possibly military advisors have been in Iran for a long time -- I'm sorry, been in Syria for a long time. It might be sort of helping in advice and so on.
SALEMBut that Hezbollah's role and sights have always been in Lebanon and across the border to Israel, and that Syria has enough security, experience and apparatus and so on to try to manage goods on its own. So there doesn't seem to be much direct Hezbollah involvement in Syria. The kidnappings that began a couple of months ago were kidnappings in Syria of Lebanese Shiites who -- some of whom were said to be members of Hezbollah.
SALEMAnd these 11 kidnappings have remained detained since then despite apparently many attempts to get them freed. In a sense probably is that somebody in Syria or backers of the rebellion in Syria are trying to drag Hezbollah, you know, sort of away from it focus on Israel, perhaps into the Syrian conflict or into a Lebanese conflict. Nasrallah and the media of Hezbollah has been, from the beginning, trying to calm tension in Lebanon, calm tempers and families of the kidnapping such as a couple of days ago, things did get out of hand.
SALEMNasrallah himself said that they got out of the control of Hezbollah and the allied Amal Movement and that these families are really demanding their members to be brought back. But essentially Hezbollah really wants to stay out of the Syrian trade, but at the same time certainly wants to maintain its dominance in Lebanon, certainly hopes that the Assad regime will survive. But otherwise, it doesn't wanna be directly involved, it doesn't wanna be distracted or dragged in.
GJELTENWell, Paul, one more question and then I'm gonna let you go. You said that even if the Assad regime were to fall, it wouldn't present an existential challenge to Hezbollah. You said that they have the option of hunkering down and so forth. But what about their -- and you mentioned how much weaponry they have at their disposal. But what would the collapse of the Assad regime mean for their future access to weapons?
GJELTENI mean, would they just have to sort of adopt a different strategy? I mean, they would not have sort of an open supply line to Iran to resupply their weaponries. Isn't that right?
SALEMWell, I mean, the big question, is if the Assad regime falls, how it will it fall, what will that look like, and what will happen afterwards? I mean, look at (unintelligible) under Saddam and Iraq. After Saddam, you have an independent Kurdish area. You have fighting in different provinces. Perhaps, now Maliki and Baghdad is at least, consolidating some control over the Arab provinces. But Syria is -- it's possible that Syria could, you know, collapse for a decade or two as a real centralized state.
SALEMAnd we would have a (word?) dominated northwest, the region which could try to build relations with the northern Iraqi Kurdish area and possibly with Iraq and so on. So, I mean, what I would say that certainly the point of the Assad regime would pose to Hezbollah a serious, you know, and very dramatic new strategic reality which would be a very bad one. I think they would certainly struggle to try in the way they maintain a live link. They might fail in doing so.
SALEMBut the real threat at the end of the day even if they're not -- I mean, if they are unable to maintain the land that is in Iran, the threat will not come from Lebanon or from Syria to Hezbollah. It would always come from Israel to Hezbollah. And that's why they maintain, you know, their sights in that direction.
SALEMOf course, if Israel feel that some point that Hezbollah cannot rearm as they did in 2006, it's possible that they would consider, perhaps, you know, another attack, particularly the tensions between Israel and Iran remain so high, and that Hezbollah as a strategic player is indeed a proxy for the Iranian military.
GJELTENOkay. Paul Salem is director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon. He joined us from Beirut. And, Paul, thanks very much for that update from Beirut. And...
SALEMThank you, Tom. All the best.
GJELTENGood, thank you. Matt Levitt, as Paul said, there is a new strategic reality here. To what extent do you see things really changing in the next few months for Hezbollah with the prospect of the Assad regime falling, with the prospect of a Israeli strike or perhaps a joint U.S.-Israeli strike on Iran? To what extent are we really gonna talking about a new Middle East picture, and what does that mean for Hezbollah?
LEVITTWell, I think from Hezbollah's perspective, it means a lot and the fact that Hezbollah is involved on the ground in Syria according to the U.S. government. Just two weeks ago, the Treasury Department designated Hezbollah, again, it's been long been designated as a terrorist group, this time exposing its activities, training, logistics, et cetera, in Lebanon -- I'm sorry, in Syrian, in support of the Syrian regime suggests that this is something that Hezbollah sees as a real threat.
LEVITTBecause as Paul said, this is not where it normally would be operating. Normally, it would be focusing its efforts on its primary enemy, which is Israel. In the past, when it has moved beyond that, especially in the Middle East, it's done that at Iran's behest, consider attacks Kuwait in the 1980s or helping the blowup the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, more recently operating in Iraq.
LEVITTBut here in Syria, I think it's much more of its own interest as you said, primarily because of its ability to arm or rearm. Even if Syria -- the Assad regime falls, it appears that Hezbollah would still enough rockets for three or four more good wars. But its inability to rearm would be a real setback for it, one that I'm not sure it would be able to recover from quickly in terms of its ability to present that kind of a threat to Israel over the long term.
GHATTASWell, I think that it's important to remember that Hezbollah, as Shibley pointed out, is also very much a Lebanese group. It's a Lebanese political movement, not just an armed militant group. And for a lot of Shias who have, as I said, historically felt like the underrepresented community, the downtrodden of Lebanon, even though they no longer are the poorest community of Lebanon, for them Hezbollah represents a voice that they're not going to willingly let go of.
GHATTASAnd Hezbollah feeds off that narrative as well to maintain its position in the country. So, for them, it's also a fight for their own survival as a political party in Lebanon, and I think they're going to be very careful about how they navigate this period. Yes, Assad is very important for them strategically, and the supply routes are very important. But what's even more important is their own survival in Lebanon.
GHATTASAnd I think they're going to be very careful not to jeopardize that, because also for Iran, it's important that they be able to maintain this, if you will, foothold on the Mediterranean. But just going back briefly to a point that Shibley made about Hezbollah, they are very popular amongst many Lebanese, especially in the Shia community. But it's important to remember, there is also an element of coercion there.
GHATTASI've spoken to a lot of Shias in Lebanon who are very unhappy with Hezbollah's strong hold over the community because they feel that Hezbollah does not represent them, but there is no one else to represent them. So it's important to keep things in context.
GJELTENShibley, put this in the context of this sectarian tension between the broader Sunni community and the broader Shia community across the Middle East. And that made -- Kim mentioned how important Hezbollah is for the Shia community across the Middle East.
TELHAMINo question. And let me start then with sort of the thought of the existential threat connected to the Shia-Sunni divide because I agree with Paul Salem, by the way, that Hezbollah is not really facing existential threat because of what's happening in Syria. They would lose if Assad -- the Assad regime collapses, and they've already lost by the instability in Syria. But they will have -- you know, Syria is unlikely to be very stable when and if the Assad regime falls.
TELHAMIAnd they will have some allies and supply routes, and they'll find a way, and they're already strong. So I think they'll do -- I think the bigger existential threat to them, I think, is actually civil war in Lebanon. And what we see -- you know, obviously you could say they could win that, but then, of course, there are a lot of parties that would get involved. That would be hugely consequential for them.
TELHAMIYou already see -- in some ways, the threat from the Syrian events is less so much losing an ally in Syria as much as the spillover effect. You already see Sunnis militarizing in Lebanon. You already see some loss of control. Hezbollah, in his speech on Friday, when he was commenting about the kidnappings by a Shia tribe...
GJELTENNasrallah in his speech.
TELHAMIWhen he was commenting on the kidnappings by a Shia tribe, he was saying, "They are out of our control," and he was almost sending a message to the state to deal with them. I think that is actually the bigger threat to them than Israel, in some ways. He was -- he, of course, sees Israel as a threat, and he thinks he's got -- he's been able to establish deterrence. He sent a message to the Israelis on Friday, saying that we are capable of "killing tens of thousands.
TELHAMI"Don't think it's gonna be like 2006. We know you can destroy a lot. We can't destroy you. But we can --" so he thinks he's got a deterrence capacity to stop the Israelis.
GJELTENShibley Telhami. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Matt Levitt, let's bring this back to what the U.S. interest is here. One of the things that you have called attention to in your own writings is Hezbollah's, in your words, massive diplomatic presence in this hemisphere, in South America and Central America in particular. What's going on there? What's Hezbollah's interest in South America? Of course a big Lebanese population in that region between Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina.
LEVITTRight. Iran's diplomatic presence, to correct. Hezbollah doesn't have diplomatic presence in South America.
GJELTENRight, right, right, right. Iran's, but Hezbollah has an important proxy.
LEVITTVery much so. And there is a concern not only about Hezbollah activity abroad, terrorist activity abroad and its militant activity in the region, but about its footprint here. You know, my colleagues have spoken about Hezbollah's political, social, military activities in Lebanon, and it is all those things. But it also has activities worldwide and has a global footprint.
LEVITTHere, in the Western Hemisphere, authorities are particularly concerned about its ability to raise funds, hand over fist, through criminal activity in particular and, in recent years, by getting involved in the movement of narcotics and the laundering of drug money. We had the recent action against the Lebanese-Canadian bank and tied that to drug cartels and money laundering for them that was done by people who were working for Hezbollah.
LEVITTThere are many more investigations like that one under way by the Treasury Department, by the Justice Department, by countries in South America. And then in particular, of course, as you mentioned, there's the tri-border area where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina meet, where there's a very large free trade zone and where Hezbollah has historically engaged in a tremendous amount of criminal activity that we've now seen move throughout South America to other free trade zones as well.
LEVITTSo we don't see training camps and the like. It's not like people are there, you know, plotting the next attack in the United States. But we do see a very large financial and logistical support network operating in this side of the line.
GJELTENAnd do you think that if Hezbollah were to lose its patronage in Syria, would that illegal activity and the funding that it brings, would that be an important -- all the more important to them?
LEVITTIt already has become so. A few years ago, when the price of oil fell and sanctions were really beginning to hit a run, intelligence officials reported that Iran had to suddenly cut back its financial support for Hezbollah by perhaps more than 30 percent. Now we believe that that has been picked up again, but that sends a message to Hezbollah that it can't count on that support under any circumstance.
LEVITTHezbollah, rightly or wrongly, has long been afraid that there might be some type of grand bargain between the U.S. and Iran, as unlikely as that may be. And so I think that's one of the reasons that we've seen a significant increase in what had already been a tremendously lucrative and expansive criminal enterprise, series of enterprises by Hezbollah internationally.
GJELTENAnd, Kim, Ghattas, I'm sure that there's a lot of concern in U.S. circles about if there were to be some action against Iran, the ability of Hezbollah to act in Iran's behalf in terms of retaliation against U.S. and allied interest in response to an attack.
GHATTASYes, absolutely, and I think that's perhaps even more reason why Iran and Hezbollah are going to calculate their every move very carefully because Assad may fall, and they will live with that and the aftermath of that. But they want to make sure, both Iran and Hezbollah, that if there is indeed a strike, an Israeli strike against Iran, that Hezbollah is there to, in essence, help its other patron and its other ally in Iran.
GJELTENKim Ghattas is State Department correspondent for the BBC. She's the author of a -- also the author of a forthcoming book on Hillary Clinton during her years as secretary of state. We're talking about Hezbollah and what its role has been in Lebanon and beyond in the past and what it's likely to be in the future. When we come back, you can join us. Call us, 1-800-433-8850. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And, you know, sometimes guest hosts make mistakes, and apparently I put out the wrong phone number just before the break. Our correct phone number is 1-800-433-8850. And we have -- the board is full right now, but we'll gonna get to some of these calls in a minute.
GJELTENBut just before we do that, Shibley Telhami, we mentioned a very important issue right before the break, and that is that if there were to be some of kind of military action against Iran, Iran might be tempted to strike back and Hezbollah might be a proxy for that kind of retaliation. To what extent is that a concern?
TELHAMIWell, that's really a huge issue 'cause if you ask me, you know, we're talking about Syria and its consequences and the legitimacy crisis for Hezbollah. But in the end, if there is war between Israel and Iran, it's gonna reshuffle the strategic deck in the entire region for Hezbollah and, you know, in some unpredictable ways. Most Israelis are actually persuaded that if there is war with Iran that Hezbollah will come in. Some even think that Israel might pre-empt Hezbollah, you know, on -- before it would strike Iran.
TELHAMIHezbollah has been actually saying that it's not automatic that they would join in case of war, and they've -- talking as if Iran has the capacity to defend itself or to deter Israel or to hurt Israel on its own. But obviously, it's a wildcard. And if, in fact -- you can envision many scenarios in which inevitably Hezbollah gets drawn in, and that is huge, not only for civilian casualties in Israel and Lebanon. But I think the Israelis clearly have in mind destruction of the infrastructure.
TELHAMINow they see Hezbollah as essentially the power behind the government. And that could have ramifications, huge ramifications for the national unity in Lebanon. So that, really, is the biggest wildcard in my opinion. You know, a year from now, there are some people who say it's -- and I'm one of them -- that the prospect of war between Israel and Iran is maybe 50-50 in the next year. That's pretty high.
TELHAMIAnd if you look at it that way, you can imagine that if you're sitting at Hezbollah's place and you're making your assessment strategically about what you need to do for the next year, this is the one that that is the central basis of your calculations.
GJELTENAnd what you all have agreed on is that even though they may lose their supply routes via Syria, they have enough weapons in their arsenal that they can do a lot of damage. Matt Levitt.
LEVITTAnd it's also not a given that if the way -- if they choose to respond against Israel, that they do so overtly with rockets. They could also just engage in terrorist attacks. Both Hezbollah and Iran really prefer that kind of reasonable deniability, which is why the Israelis and Americans now are so concerned about the spate of increased terrorist attacks worldwide.
GHATTASHezbollah's arsenal of weapons is substantial. They are a force to be reckoned with, not only for Israel but also internally, and I think that the idea of another civil war in Lebanon, at the moment, if all other things remain equal, a civil war will be over very quickly because Hezbollah has more weapons than anyone else in the country. They are more organized, more trained.
GHATTASAnd I do think that at the moment, they are very reluctant to get drawn into any internal conflict that feeds the narrative of a Sunni-Shia divide inside the country. And they've been navigating this over the last few weeks and months very carefully as well inside Lebanon.
GJELTENOK. At last I'm going to bring some callers into our conversation. First, Faith, who's on the line from Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Faith.
FAITHGood morning. Thank you so much for taking the call. I have great respect for the Diane Rehm and the panelists. I really just need to say that from the get-go.
GJELTENGood. Thank you.
FAITHBut I also have to say that I really take issue with the explanation of the origins of Hezbollah. Post '70, '71, when you had the Black September massacres, the Palestinian camps in Jordan, you had tens of thousands of Palestinians who came into Lebanon. And unlike the neighboring Arab states that gave a citizenship to the Palestinians or at least allowed them to have employment and join the army, the Lebanese government was not as kind. And all of them were placed in refugee camps.
FAITHThey were neither foreigners nor nationals, and their conditions within the camps were horrifying. And at the time the, Lebanese-Christian faction of the government feared about the integration of the Palestinians and virtually all of then Sunni Muslims would have set the nation's sectarian balance. And therefore, it was our effect who came in with over $400 million in annual subsidies from Saudi Arabia and other places to help organize a series in the camps -- there were 15 of these camps -- to organize employment and welfare at all, you know, in terms of employment. And that is the origin of Hezbollah.
GJELTENOkay. All right.
FAITHIt's not because of Israel.
GJELTENOkay. Okay, Faith. Our panelists are anxious to respond. First, Shibley Telhami.
TELHAMIWell, there's no question. First, you know, refugee question is a big one in Lebanon across the board, and it's been a factor. And the PLO had, you know, what constitute within a state was a complicating factor.
TELHAMIBut I think almost everybody, who looks at the evolution of Hezbollah and its emergence as a militant organization, looks at the consequences of the '78 Israeli operation, the '82 Israeli operation in Lebanon against the PLO that resulted in hundreds of thousands of Shia refugees from the South going into the slums of Beirut and suffering a lot of casualties in that war between Israel and the Palestinians.
TELHAMIAnd that is really the one that led to the emergence of a -- initially, Musa al-Sadr, you know, essentially organizing the Shia and looking after their interest both -- vis-a-vis Israel and internally within Lebanon and then ultimately when Hezbollah came to power in 1991 further building on that. But I think that -- I don't think there's really much a dispute about this kind of history.
GJELTENOkay, Kim. Quick thought.
GHATTASYes. I think there are two separate things and two subsequent events. I mean, they followed each other. The Palestinian armed presence in South Lebanon as well as the refugees did give a platform for Palestinian guerillas to launch attacks against Israel as they were trying to free what they saw as their homeland.
GHATTASSubsequently, Israel invaded South Lebanon twice, and the occupation of South Lebanon by Israel is what transformed eventually what was a secular, mostly Palestinian-led movement in Lebanon and gave birth to a militant Islamic guerilla movement called Hezbollah. They developed over several years, but it is correct that, initially, it was a secular, leftist-mostly movement with a lot of Palestinian influence, obviously.
GJELTENVery quick, Matt.
LEVITTAnd the midwife for that was Iran.
LEVITTThis didn't happen just naturally on its own. Iran took a variety of Shia militant groups, some more, some less Islamic and, over time, worked them into what we now know as Hezbollah.
GJELTENWell, Faith, thank you for that question because it really spurred an interesting discussion here among our panel. Let's go now to Andrew, who's on the line from Ann Arbor this morning. Good morning, Andrew.
ANDREWGood morning. Thanks for taking my call. I appreciate it.
ANDREWI would like the guests to address two questions. The first one is to what extent does the United States and Israel overplay Hezbollah's global influence? To my understanding -- I have the opportunity to write my senior honesty for the University of Michigan on Hezbollah's development. To what extent is Hezbollah really a global player, or are they really more of a regional presence? And secondly, I'd like to address some things that Mr. Levitt said, in particular, and for him to be more concrete about his accusations of Hezbollah operating in South America and other continents.
ANDREWIt appears to me that particularly after Israel was forced to end its occupation South Lebanon that campaign against Hezbollah heightened dramatically by the United States and Israel, and it began to -- and Hezbollah was presented to the world as nothing more than an ideological or military proxy of Syria and Iran.
ANDREWThat certainly isn't the case, and it's very clear that between the attempts by the United States to hold Hezbollah accountable for Rafic Hariri's assassination and now these sham indictments against individuals connected to the Lebanese Canadian Bank, if you've read some of these indictments, the evidence that the Justice Department uses supposedly to make a connection between these individuals to Hezbollah is anything but substantial. (unintelligible)
GJELTENOkay. Okay. Yeah, you bet. Well, I'm gonna give them to Matt Levitt. Sham indictments, are you overstating the relationship between Hezbollah and, you know, Central America -- drug trafficking in South America, for example?
LEVITTWe'll start with the first question in terms of, you know, is Hezbollah regional or global and that feeds into the second part of the question. Hezbollah is, of course, many things. It is part of the political fabric of Lebanon. It's part of the social fabric of Lebanon. It is a militant group in Lebanon. It also has international terrorist wing and fundraising wings.
LEVITTI don't think the United States overplays -- I don't even think Israel really overplays the international piece of it as much as they have an interest in painting Hezbollah as being horrible because they really are an enemy to Israel. In terms of their presence in South America, you know, bombings in 1992, bombings in 1994, targeting civilians, that was just the beginning. In fact, it actually started much more before then. I don't think anybody is overplaying this.
LEVITTI think what's happening is that you're now seeing an effort, a conscious decision by the United States and others to begin exposing these types of activities as opposed to what had long been the policy of, let's not create waves here. If you wanna deal with Hezbollah's activities abroad, do so through other criminal tools. Don't even make the terrorism connection. Don't make it political.
LEVITTThis action, for example, right now in exposing Hezbollah's activities in Syria, it's clearly an effort to expose Hezbollah's illicit activities in yet another area. In fact, when the State Department had its press conference about this, it also took the opportunity to say that according to its evidence, Hezbollah cells in Europe are planning attacks now, and they're specifically concerned about that.
GJELTENShibley Telhami, I wanna go back to something that we haven't really spent a whole lot of time on, and that is the implications of the Arab Spring realignments for Hezbollah. The -- we have an emailer who wants to get you to comment on the link. He didn't put a name on this unfortunately, but this emailer wants you to comment on the link between Hezbollah and Hamas. And that's certainly is one example of a relationship that has been changed by the events associated with the Arab Spring.
TELHAMIAbsolutely. This is really a fabulous question because it puts it in a grander perspective. We could see a couple of things happening that are really consequential for Hezbollah. And that is at first, you know, with Egypt being preoccupied with its own affairs, Syria is in trouble, Iraq is not yet back in the Arab, you know, world as an effective flair, you now have a cluster of states that are mostly Sunni-Arab oil rich monarchies, the GCC states headed by Saudi Arabia, that have very important interest in the region.
TELHAMIAnd they're in some ways the force behind the Arab League, and they're taking the initiative, and they don't like Hezbollah. And they are, you know, trying to manage, and they are worried about Iran. And they are not -- and they are in the forefront of trying to bring down the Assad regime. So that's been one consequence. The other consequence is Hamas, which had -- was headquartered in Damascus and obviously was getting weapons from Iran as well.
TELHAMIAnd Nasrallah actually said that publicly that some of the weapons that went to Hamas came from Iran directly. Once the Assad regime started to weaken and then you had the revolution in Egypt, they -- the Hamas naturally is closer to the Muslim Brotherhood. They're off the Muslim Brotherhood. So they decided to make their -- the key ally in strategically Egypt, particularly now that they have a president who comes from the Muslim Brotherhood.
TELHAMINow, the fascinating story therefore, is what will Egypt did -- do as it's emerging as a player in the Arab world? What we see now is that Morsi -- President Morsi of Egypt has suggested involving Iran in the resolution of the Syrian conflict of having a kind of coordination through the Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt and Iran. Iran may be open to that. He is reported going to visit Tehran soon in the Movement of Non-Aligned that is taking place -- meeting of Movement of Non-Aligned that's taking place in Tehran.
TELHAMISo in some ways, there is something going on here that, you know, while you have, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt may be having its own separate interest from Iran and Hezbollah, they are still more open to the idea of coordination. And that Hezbollah may find some space here for coordination.
GJELTENWell, all these changes in the Middle East, they're associated with the Arab Spring are what makes this discussion about Hezbollah so interesting and important. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Scott, who's on the line from Jonesboro, Ark. Good morning, Scott. Thanks for calling "The Diane Rehm Show."
SCOTTGood morning. And thanks again for taking my call. And excuse my southern allergies. The Hezbollah coalition in Lebanon involves an alliance with the Christian community. And I'm just curious, what's the rationale behind that alliance? I think it's a simple question but perhaps a complex answer.
GJELTENOkay. I'm gonna give that question to Kim Ghattas who's from Lebanon. And actually, Kim, you just moved here a number of years ago, so you're gonna be our expert on the internal dynamics.
GHATTASYes. I spent many years as a reporter in Lebanon trying to explain the very complex politics of the country to the outside world. And I always joke that if you suddenly understand Lebanon, it means that someone's explained it badly to you.
GHATTASBut the alliance between Hezbollah and the Christian community or parts of the Christian community represented by particularly or specifically the Christian general, Michel Aoun, is a function of Lebanese politics. It's about making alliances that work in the moment. And Gen. Aoun was criticized by many other Christians for making that alliance because he was once an enemy, let's say, of Syria.
GHATTASAnd when he returned to the country after years in exile, he allied himself not only with Hezbollah but indirectly therefore also with Syria. And his ambition was to become president of Lebanon. And he was hoping that with Hezbollah on his side, he would be able to reach that goal. So in essence, it's a marriage of convenience.
GHATTASAlthough, of course, supporters of Mr. Aoun will say that he has chosen a path that is one of opposing, you know, outside interference in Lebanon that is one of opposing Western designs over Lebanon. And that's why he has chosen to ally himself with Hezbollah, which is seen as this -- as part of this access of resistance against not only Israel but also the West.
GJELTENSo Lebanon is just one of the countries that people have a hard time -- one of the countries in the Middle East that people have a hard time understanding. Let's go now to Josh. We don't have a lot of time left in the program but Josh is on the phone from New York. Good morning, Josh.
JOSHGood morning. How are you?
JOSHSo I have actually just two questions.
JOSHI just sat down with a book on Hezbollah and Hamas. And so I was wondering if people could comment about potential schisms that's gonna take place between Hamas and Hezbollah and the Iranians due to the relationship of what's going on with Syria. And then secondly, potential U.S. involvement and Israeli involvement if WMDs, if the consented WMDs, specifically chemical weapons of the Syrian, is falling into the wrong hands.
GJELTENYou know, Josh, we -- should we just talk about the Hamas-Hezbollah split. So let's -- in those little time that we have left -- very quickly, Matt, do you have a thought on the danger of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction falling into Hezbollah's hands in Syria?
LEVITTThere's a general fear about the weapons of mass destruction, the chemical weapons in particular, that are in the Syrian stockpile, one of the, if not the largest in the Middle East. But it's something that U.S., Jordanian and other forces are very, very tuned to. I imagined that the second that the Assad regime falls, that'll be the first thing that people will be running to secure. And I think the fear is not just that they would fall into the hands of Hezbollah. There are lots of militant actors in the ground there, and they might not be as responsible as the government might be.
GJELTENMatt Levitt is senior fellow and director of The Washington Institute's Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, and he is the author of a forthcoming book tentatively titled "Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon's Party of God." I was also joined today by Kim Ghattas, state department correspondent for the BBC. She's also got a book coming out on Hillary Clinton. And Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor of peace and development at the University of Maryland.
GJELTENHe is also co-author of a forthcoming book, "The Peace Puzzle: America's Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace 1989-2011." I'm Tom Gjelten. Thanks for listening to "The Diane Rehm Show."
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Megan Merritt, Lisa Dunn and Rebecca Kaufman. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information.
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