WASHINGTON, July 24, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Islamic Republic of Iran has served as an ideological inspiration for Hizballah since the Lebanese militant group's creation in 1982, and Tehran acknowledges that it supports the organization morally and politically. A prominent Iranian journalist, furthermore, recently told RFE/RL that many of his compatriots sympathize with Hizballah and view it as a legitimate resistance organization.
The extent of the Iranian government's involvement with the June 12 kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hizballah and the earlier kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by Hamas is unclear, and Tehran has denied that it is involved in the current conflict.
Nevertheless, Tehran has been active in generating public outrage over the events in Lebanon, and even if Iranian military personnel are not going there openly, other Iranians are volunteering to do so.
Volunteers Head For Lebanon
Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the father of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said in a July 18 letter to Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah that he is ready to go to Lebanon to fight the "enemies of Islam and humanity," Iranian state television reported. Khomeini met with Nasrallah during a July 2 visit to Damascus, IRNA reported.
The Pro-Justice Student Movement announced on July 15 that a convoy of students will be sent to Palestine and to Lebanon in the coming week, ILNA reported.
A spokesman for the Commemoration Headquarters for the Martyrs of Islam's World Movement, identified only as Mohammadi, said on July 16 that 27 members who have been trained to carry out suicide bombings have been sent to Lebanon, Mehr News Agency reported. These individuals will take action if Israel attempts to occupy Lebanon, he said, and they also are ready to form resistance cells.
Iran's Basij Resistance Force, which is an arm of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, issued a statement on July 16 in which it condemned the Israeli attack on Lebanon, condemned Western governments that support Israel, and pledged support for the Palestinians, according to the Basij News Agency. The statement added: "the Basij Resistance Force believes that Israel, the region's rancid cancerous tumor, must be wiped off the map."
Iranian Military Leaders Voice Caution
While such enthusiasm and self-sacrifice is almost certainly welcomed by the Iranian leadership, the Iranian armed forces seems to have a greater sensitivity to the repercussions of amateurish Iranian combatants being captured or killed in Lebanon.
General Mohammad Hejazi, commander of the Basij, said on July 21 that groups with no official connections or proper authorization had raised the possibility of dispatching volunteer suicide bombers to Lebanon, Fars News Agency reported. Hejazi said this is nothing more than "propaganda" and -- although it might be well-intentioned -- it does not help Iran or Hizballah. "There no doubt exists better ways to defend the Islamic resistance," he added.
In addition, allegations that Iranian military supplies and even personnel were involved in the conflict appeared almost as soon as hostilities commenced.
Most recently, long-time defense correspondent Ze'ev Schiff wrote in the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" on July 21 that Iranian munitions are being trucked to Hizballah via Syria, and the Iranian Embassy is coordinating actual military operations. Schiff noted that the long-range Zilzal missiles that Iran has allegedly provided to Hizballah have not been used yet.
Hejazi of the Basij dismissed such allegations in his comments on July 21, adding that Israel makes unsubstantiated statements to hide its own failures.
Major General Hassan Firuzabadi, head of the Armed Forces General Staff, said on July 22 that there will be no Iranian military involvement in the Lebanese conflict, IRNA reported. "The Islamic Republic of Iran will just continue its political and diplomatic support for Lebanon," he said. Firuzabadi added that U.S. President George W. Bush and U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair planned the war.
Mohammad-Javad Zarif, the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, said on July 21 that everybody knows who is responsible for events in the Middle East, IRNA reported. He dismissed the allegations against Iran and added that all problems in the region stem from the Israeli occupation and its consequences. "These allegations emanate from the occupying regime and are relayed by Zionist quarters across the globe to overshadow its crimes and excuse its recent chronic setbacks in the face of a growing resistance in Palestine and Lebanon," he said.
Praise From The Pulpits
While the Iranian government is keen to avoid the appearance of being involved in the current conflict, it has been quick to whip up public sentiment over the issue, possibly with the intention of diverting attention from more pressing problems, such as unemployment. There are hundreds of Friday Prayer leaders in Iran who are appointed by the central government and whose sermons are dictated or at least outlined by a central authority. Praise for Hizballah and criticism of the United States and Israel were major aspects of the sermons on July 21.
In Tehran, Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said events in Lebanon and in Gaza were "engineered by the U.S. and Israel," state radio reported. The plan was prepared "weeks in advance," he said. Rafsanjani criticized international human rights organizations for their silence on these events. The Lebanese and Hizballah have survived and "resisted well," he said, adding, "They are the heroes, both Hizballah members and the Hizballah leader, our dear brother Seyyed Hassan Nasrallah. He is truly a historical figure in our world today."
Hashemi-Rafsanjani suggested that southern Lebanon might be occupied by foreign, pro-Israeli forces. He explained, "To remove their citizens, several powerful countries, such as Canada, America, and Britain, are bringing in military troops. Of course, it is apparently for taking out their citizens but [other] things could happen."
In the southwestern city of Ahvaz, Hojatoleslam Mohsen Heidari also criticized human rights organizations for their alleged silence, Khuzestan Province television reported. "With a green light from Western governments, particularly America, the criminal Israel is murdering the oppressed people of Lebanon and Palestine," he added. Hizballah, he continued, is representing the Islamic world, and Arab and Muslim governments are therefore obliged to help it.
In Mashhad, Hojatoleslam Seyyed Ahmad Elmolhoda said Hizballah's resistance has revealed Israel's "aggressive visage of profanity and apostasy," IRNA reported. He called on Islamic countries to provide greater support for Hizballah. Elmolhoda added, "We hope that Israel, like the Taliban and Saddam which were the proteges of world arrogance, one day will turn into a source of disgrace and humiliation for America."
In the southern city of Bandar Abbas, Ayatollah Gholam Ali Naimabadi said, "Without a doubt, Israel is the manifestation of America's wrath," IRNA reported. He called for Muslims to "annihilate these superpowers."
In the city of Zanjan, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Taqi Vaezi also criticized human rights organizations for their inaction, Mehr News Agency reported. "The UN and the Security Council are tools in the hands of Western countries, especially America," he said, calling on Muslim states to act.
In Ardabil, Hojatoleslam Hassan Ameli told his congregation that Hizballah did the right thing by seizing the Israeli soldiers and firing missiles at Israel, IRNA reported. Western silence shows that its pro-democracy slogans are meaningless, he added.
Anti-Israeli Rallies Across Iran
Pro-Hizballah and anti-Western statements were not confined to the pulpit, and there were related rallies across the country. Senior officials, political activists, students, and members of the public participated in a rally in Tehran on July 18 against Israeli activities in Palestine and Lebanon, IRNA reported. Parliamentarian Hussein Muzaffar read out a statement from the legislature in which Israeli activities were denounced as "brutal aggression" and "savagery," IRNA reported. The statement criticized the U.S. for vetoing an anti-Israeli resolution in the UN Security Council.
Ali Zoham, the Hizballah envoy in Tehran, also spoke at the rally, Fars News Agency reported. "We are now fighting with the worst creatures of God," he said. The conflict is not about the Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizballah on June 12, Zoham said, "Rather, this is an idealistic, ideological, and cultural war -- the war of Islam with blasphemy." Zoham said Hizballah is willing to fight for another century, until it "demolish[es] the Israeli regime exactly the same way that we destroyed the Israeli townships, settlements, and navigation fleet."
Numerous rallies took place in the southwestern Khuzestan Province. At an event on Wednesday (July 19), a demonstrator said: "Israel is another word for America," according to provincial television. Another said, "America and Britain naturally support Israel."
The Khuzestan Province representative to the Assembly of Experts, Ayatollah Abbas Kabi, said on July 20 that the Zionists are trying to wipe out Muslims, provincial television reported. He urged locals to participate in a rally the next day. He added, "If the Zionists consider the myth of the Holocaust as acts of inhuman crime, they themselves are now committing bigger inhuman crimes in Lebanon and Palestine."
Tens of thousands of people participated in a Friday (July 21) rally in Ahvaz, provincial television reported. They chanted "Death to Israel," and a young girl said, "I have come here today to tell the children of Palestine and Lebanon that we support them."
Denials From Hizballah
With the outset of hostilities, Israeli officials immediately portrayed Hizballah as an instrument of Iranian and Syrian policy, but several Lebanese observers reject this perspective.
"To suggest Hizballah attacked [Israel on July 12] on the orders of Tehran and Damascus is to grossly oversimplify a strong strategic and ideological relationship," Lebanese American University's Professor Amal Saad-Ghorayeb wrote in a July 15 commentary in "The Guardian." Syria, Iran, Hizballah, and Hamas have overlapping interests and "form a strategic axis." However, Hizballah has "never allowed any foreign power to dictate its military strategy."
Leading figures in Hizballah also deny that Iran is telling the organization what to do. Haj Hassan Hussein, a Hizballah deputy, said, "We acknowledge that Iran helps us in humanitarian and civilian matters but we are the masters of our decisions," "Le Figaro" reported on Friday (July 21).
Hizballah Secretary-General Nasrallah said on Thursday (July 20) that neither Iran nor Syria was informed of plans to kidnap the Israelis, Al-Jazeera reported. Nasrallah said a conflict involving Lebanon could last three months but it will eventually end, and it will have no impact on the Iranian nuclear case. Moreover, he added, a Hizballah that is weakened in a war will be less able to help Iran.
Nasrallah said the homes of all leading Hizballah figures have been destroyed, and to suggest that they were acting in the interest of Iran or Syria is insulting. "Yes, we are friends of Syria and Iran, but for 24 years we benefited from our friendship with Syria and Iran for the sake of Lebanon."
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