Contra Iran

Magnus Ranstorp is among the world's leading experts on Hezbollah. Advisor to governments, former director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and currently chief scientist on asymmetric threats at Sweden's National Defense College, Ranstorp has interviewed hundreds of members of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other militant Islamist groups for his research, numerous articles, and books, including Hizb'Allah in Lebanon. He spoke from Sweden with Laura Rozen about the militia group and what the United States should be doing about the current conflict in Lebanon.

Some in the U.S. intelligence community have voiced concerns that Hezbollah has the capability to strike abroad; it's not clear at this point they have the intent. What would their calculation be?

The Israelis know that if they assassinate [Hezbollah general secretary Hassan] Nasrallah, Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence will reach around the world and hit an Israeli embassy or diplomatic mission.

Why that sort of attack? To show they have global reach?

For retribution.

I have been to Argentina, I have seen where Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence attacked the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992. I have seen their style. I assisted the Argentine Supreme Court in its investigation of the 1992 case. And it's indisputable that Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence were involved.

Why does Iran need Hezbollah to conduct terror operations? Their own intelligence operatives have conducted assassinations by themselves throughout Europe.

For plausible deniability. To operate under the cover of plausible deniability.

You're right, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security is the most formidable intelligence agency in the region, surpassing even the Mossad.

Why is Iranian intelligence so effective?

Well, they have 30,000 employees. They have to survive in a hostile Arab environment. They export Hezbollah. They are at work in the Gulf, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So is the Lebanon conflict a result of Iranian hegemony?

This conflict has to be viewed in a broader geophysical context. The bottom line is that while it has to do, of course, with what's happening in the Middle East in general, more specifically it has much to do with the brewing conflict, the U.S.-Iranian confrontation.

So you do see the Lebanon conflict as about the United States and Iran?

Without exception; with a great degree of confidence. There has been a lot of background preparation. Iran's control is more than meets the eye.

Really, if you want to mess with Iran, Hezbollah is the Achille's heal, the weakest link in the whole matrix. You take them on, not just because you want to mess with Iran, but for many reasons: for Lebanon's sake, to get some solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, also to tackle Syria, which has been a staunch ally to Iran for 26 years.

Hezbollah has been very smart maneuvering politically. They have created a broad resistance coalition in Lebanon, which they control, but they don't claim ownership of the resistance. They are playing the confessional card in the sense that they are reaching across the divide, and they have done so for a long time in order to position themselves to make it more difficult to disarm them.

Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said at an event yesterday that Hezbollah is trying to de-Lebanize Lebanon, to reorient it to Iran.

Peres is compressing the long view of the path Hezbollah has taken.

Before, during Lebanon's civil war, even into the early 1990s, Hezbollah's flag called for the Islamic Republic of Lebanon.

But as they have entered into the Lebanese political scene in recent years, they have been very smart; they've stopped calling for the Islamic Republic of Lebanon, advocating instead for the people's will to determine Lebanon's orientation in the future.

Having said that, however, the ultimate card Hezbollah can play if the Lebanese play hardball with them is to push for pure proportional representation: one man, one vote. If that's the case, Hezbollah will take over the reins of government to an even greater degree. That is the ultimate ace they have up their sleeve.

Hezbollah has organized, personal, longstanding links with Iran, on a number of different levels. In 1992, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah became the personal representative of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei in Lebanon…

Hezbollah currently has about 100 Iranian advisors in Lebanon. They don't partake in the fighting. They are more tactical advisors…

[Hezbollah provides the Iranians with] the terror machinery. It's not used very much anymore. Recently the main focus has been on trying to assist Hamas on a low scale, strategic consultations and kidnapping [the Israeli soldier]. That is coordinated via the Hamas representative in Beirut, Osama Hamdan. He used to be Hamas' rep in Iran. They have recently been trying to infiltrate foreigners into Israel; people have been arrested for carrying out reconnaissance on Israeli troops.

But the connections with Iran go ever further. The entire Hezbollah collective leadership studied in Najaf [Iraq]. Nasrallah was there between 1976 and 1979, he was there during Khomeini's rein there. The Iranian clerics were trained by the Palestinians in the 1970s….

If you were advising the U.S. government, what would you tell them to do?

I would say from a U.S. perspective, I would advise the Israelis, if they are really serious about taking out Hezbollah, they should neutralize the Hezbollah political leadership to lay the ground work for diplomatic efforts. Squeeze them in one direction, towards U.S.-led efforts to lock them into UN Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon, which means Hezbollah

The Israelis have seized the moment. Everything was in a holding pattern, stalemate, and the kidnapping was perfect for the Israelis, and they have seized the moment. From my perspective, I would tell them to continue on the same path. Not to concede until the work has been done...

I have followed this thing on a daily basis for sixteen years now, even when it was completely out of the headlines. And there has never been a better moment to really move on the Lebanese and Syrian tracks.

By the “Syrian track,” do you mean behavior change, or regime change?

Probably behavior change, although things may have to get worse before they get better. The Israelis and the Americans will part ways on this. The U.S. would like to follow through with the democratic experiment there. The Israelis don't want to change the regime.

Laura Rozen is a senior correspondent for the Prospect.