May 12, 2008, 6:30 a.m.

The Iranian Connection
What’s wrong in Lebanon.

By Claudia Rosett

In Lebanon, the Iranian-backed vanguard of terror known as Hezbollah has again drawn its weapons to provoke the worst crisis since it launched a war against Israel in the summer of 2006. The fighting that began last week in Beirut, and then relocated east to the Chouf Mountains and north to Tripoli, is the latest act in the relentless smothering of the Lebanese democratic state. At best, we might next see an uneasy respite in the killing while the usual players haggle, President Bush trolls the region for that oh-so-elusive Middle-East-peace legacy, Hezbollah further stocks its arsenal and from behind the barrel of a gun consolidates its grip, United Nations peacekeepers get paid to watch — and Lebanon’s hopes for democracy slide ever deeper into the pit.

By now, it ought to be obvious that Lebanon’s agonies will not be solved by parleys in Beirut. Nor will any solution come from elaborately brokered deals tendered by the Arab League, nor by way of American-inked diplomatic road maps, conclaves, and more United Nations resolutions.

Lebanon is a country infested with a terrorist-run movement — Hezbollah — which is backed by muscular, murderous, utterly ruthless and terror-loving state patrons in both neighboring Syria, and Syria’s kissing cousin, Iran. That gives Lebanon very bad odds. Damascus, Tehran, and their Hezbollah brood are not gunning for peace and democracy in Lebanon. Their game right now in that lovely, lively slice of Mediterranean real estate is instability, with its accompanying openings for encroachment, a tightening noose around Israel, and expanded turf and power in the Middle East. “Stability” in their scheme will come only with subjugation, and with Hezbollah’s declared goals of establishing an Islamic state in Lebanon and eliminating Israel.

In this same spirit, Iran and (as we recently learned) Syria have also been pursuing nuclear weapons (the only bright spot in this department being that Israel with an air strike last September destroyed the nuclear reactor that Syria was building in secret, with North Korean help, on the Euphrates River).

At the hands of this gang, Lebanon since the uplifting scenes in March, 2005 of its Cedar Revolution has suffered an obscene onslaught of subversion, infiltration, and violence designed to thwart any progress toward stable democratic rule. A series of leading reformers have been threatened, attacked, or murdered — such as newspaperman Gebran Tueni, an outspoken force for democracy, blown up in his car in December, 2005. In July, 2006, having launched an unprovoked war with Israel by kidnapping two Israeli soldiers who have not been heard from since, Hezbollah dug into its huge illicit arsenal to pose as the defender of Lebanon, posturing as a “resistance” force upon the wreckage its own actions had wrought. When the U.N. in August, 2006 brokered a peace deal, Hezbollah took the breather, but refused to comply with terms that it disarm. Instead, while attacking the legitimacy of the elected government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Hezbollah resumed trucking in weapons and building its parallel infrastructure, both physical and political, of a terror-state within a state, overseen by “Death to Israel! Death to America!” Iran acolyte Hassan Nasrallah.

In other words, having been only recently delivered from years of occupation by Syrian troops and secret police, Lebanon is now being colonized by Iran and affiliates — though, there is of course considerable overlap among these forces of murk, mayhem, and totalitarian rule. The only way out for Lebanese who desire a free state is to disarm Hezbollah. But as long as Hezbollah enjoys the havens, training camps, supply lines, and support of Syria and Iran, trying to wrest away its weapons is like trying to empty a near-bottomless well.

What of the U.N.? Stacks of U.N. sanctions and other resolutions, plus a long-simmering U.N. investigation into Syrian involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, have all failed to prevent the debacles described above. As for the U.N. peacekeepers, the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL (now celebrating its 30th year as an “interim” U.N. exercise), the tale is no better. Clearly UNIFIL has been no obstacle to Hezbollah’s current bout of in-country carnage. Beefed up after the 2006 summer war, and currently fielding more than 12,000 military staff and more than 600 Lebanese, with an annual budget of $713 million, UNIFIL by various accounts has resumed its old routine in which Hezbollah stocks its arsenal, struts its guns, and UNIFIL observes. According to Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper, for instance, a UNIFIL patrol in late March tried to inspect a suspicious-looking truck in the Bekaa Valley. Up drove two vans carrying five men with assault weapons. The UNIFIL troops left. In a ritual U.N. response that won’t deflect a single bullet, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called the encounter “worrying.”

The truth is that there will be no salvation for Lebanon until there is regime change in Iran. One might dicker over whether an end to the regime in Damascus might suffice, especially given the strong ties that inspire Hezbollah to decorate its rallies in Lebanon with posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But the epicenter of the problem; the prime boot camp where Hezbollah foot-soldiers go for indoctrination and terrorist training; the oil-rich moneybags and top dog among this transnational pack of thugs, is the regime of Iran. Until it goes, Hezbollah will have the resources, the safe havens, and the incentive to press on with its role as Iran’s proxy force on Israel’s northern border, and sharp stick in the eye of a White House that hailed and tried to support Lebanon’s 2005 Cedar Revolution.

As a prescription these days, regime change in Iran may of course sound quite useless and maybe even deranged — at least as far as it might require any input from the United States. Washington can still talk a good game, but on the ground — apart from following up in Afghanistan and Iraq — the administration has gone out of the regime-change business. In a statement last week on the fighting in Beirut, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got most of the words right: “Backed by Syria and Iran, Hezbollah and its allies are killing and injuring fellow citizens, undermining the legitimate authority of the Lebanese government and the institutions of the Lebanese state.” O.K., but now what?

Now, nothing. The policy of preemption, declared by Bush in 2002, ended with the toppling in 2003 of Saddam Hussein. During Bush’s second term, in dealing with threats that include a nuclear-proliferating North Korea and a nuclear-bomb-seeking Iran, White House policy has been all about appeasement and procrastination, packaged as peace deals. Israel, with its air strike on Syria’s reactor last fall, did more in one morning to protect the security of the free world than anything the diplomats of the Bush administration currently have in the works.

Were Bush willing to reconsider and attempt something — anything — forceful enough to truly give regime change a chance in Tehran, it could head off a great many evils. It could avert the looming prospect of an expansionist Iran practicing nuclear extortion in the Gulf. It might well save America and our allies from great harm at the hands of Iran’s sprawling terrorist networks, including Hezbollah — which operates not only in Lebanon, but in this hemisphere, and during its 26-year history has killed more Americans than any terrorist group except al-Qaeda. And unseating the tyrants of Tehran could also give Lebanon its only real chance to fulfill the promise — once bragged up by the White House as a model for the Middle East — of the Cedar Revolution. That this does not now seem likely to happen does not change the reality it would be the right thing to do.