Defiant Khatami insists Tehran still supports Hizbollah

By Robert Fisk in Beirut

14 May 2003

If the Americans expected submission, they didn't get it in Beirut yesterday afternoon. President Mohammad Khatami of Iran - whose election gave him a far more convincing majority than George Bush received in America - insisted that Tehran's support for the Lebanese Hizbollah would remain firm, that Israel must leave the last square miles of Lebanese territory and that - here was the old, familiar Khatami refrain - there must be a "dialogue" of civilisations.

The Shia Muslims of Lebanon, the largest if largely unacknowledged community in the country, flocked to see their hero in Beirut, women in chadors and great bearded men weeping with delight at the mere sight of the thin, ascetic but humane cleric who once offered a real hope of democracy in Iran.

Alas for hopes. The religious hierarchy in Tehran has crushed President Khatami's spirit of freedom - it tore up two parliamentary bills demanding yet more freedoms this week - but his message to the Lebanese contains a powerful emotional charge: don't give in, trust in God, believe in humanism. It is very much the message of the Renaissance with which the West was blessed but of which the Middle East - we are talking here about Islam - was deprived. Vincent Battle, America's unimaginative ambassador to Lebanon, has been preaching the lessons of Israeli submission to the Lebanese for weeks: disarm the Hizbollah fighters, put the Lebanese army on the border with Israel, learn the lessons of the "war on terror".

In this particular conflict - the American version of it as it supposedly applies to Lebanon - Hizbollah must be forced to surrender, Israel's northern border must be left untouched (forgetting the little matter of Shebaa farms) and Lebanese soldiers must protect Israel's frontier. Talks between US and Iranian officials had suggested President Khatami might make some allusion to Washington's demands.

Not so. He has praised Hizbollah, recalled its courage in forcing an Israeli retreat in 2000 and given Iran's continued support to the Lebanese - and pro-Syrian - government in Beirut. At a rally in the great sports stadium of west Beirut tonight, he repeated all these themes - to the infinite relief of Hizbollah, which feared that a new, post-Iraq world order might have sidelined its resistance movement.

But the days are young and Syria's gentle sidelining of "terrorist" Palestinian groups in Damascus may yet reflect painfully on Beirut. If Hizbollah are "terrorists" - America's faithful parroting of Israel - and if they are the "A team of terrorism", the cliche adopted by Colin Powell's faithful State Department protigi Richard Armitage, who knows what pressures may be placed on Tehran in the coming months?

One thought in Beirut is that the US nurtures the idea that a peaceful, pliable, Islamic Iran could take up the Shah's old role of policeman of the Middle East, controlling the wayward Shia Muslim majority of Iraq, maintaining the loyalty of Saudi Arabia's Shia Muslim population over the Saudi oil fields and generally ensuring that the Arab Gulf states don't go to war with each other.

But President Khatami - perhaps the only truly democratically elected leader in the Muslim Middle East - seems in no mood for such a place in history. His lecture to Lebanese academics and preachers yesterday morning was one of peace and compromise. Politicians - he did not identify them though we could guess - "exploit science, morality, literature and art for their individual interests, at their own will, under their talons of power", he said. He wanted a new, spiritual life - capable "of establishing the foundation for the most profound of all dialogues between cultures and civilisations and religions" - that recognised no geographical boundaries. Human rights "in all aspects of man's material and spiritual life" were what he wanted.

Was this what America was asking for in Iraq? Yes, he wanted an American withdrawal from Iraq. And why not? After all, US troops are now in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and in the Gulf. Iran is surrounded. Which, one supposes, is why the Hizbollah in Lebanon - a country once described by a Hizbollah cleric as "the lung through which Iran breathes" - is so important to the Islamic Republic. Not to mention Syria and Lebanon itself.

This is how the reasoning goes: if Hizbollah was disarmed, there is no reason why Syria should expect Israel to give back the occupied Golan Heights to Damascus. If Lebanon disarms Hizbollah, there is no reason why it should not sign a peace treaty with Israel, abandoning its claim - justified in international law - to the still-occupied Shebaa farms. The last disciplined, armed group opposed to Israel - and forget, here, the ragtag Palestinian militias - would be closed down. No wonder they cheered President Khatami last night. But did they realise that only a few metres away lay the slums of the Sabra and Chatilla Palestinian refugee camps, whose population was first slaughtered by Israel's brutal allies - and then by Lebanese Shias loyal to the present Speaker of Parliament who himself held warm talks with Mr Khatami only a few hours earlier?