Iran’s role as a regional power
The Real News Network’s Paul Jay talks to Gareth Porter about Iran’s goals in supporting Hamas and Hezbollah. Hezbollah may have started with the help of Iran but it has evolved into something that is quite independent. Iran’s position in relation to Hamas and Hezbollah is as "bargaining chips" in a negotiated settlement with the US to be recognized as a regional power in the Middle East.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, THE REAL NEWS NETWORK: Thank you for joining us again for part 3 of my interview with Gareth Porter. Gareth is an independent investigative historian and journalist, these days focusing on Iran and Iraq. Gareth, if nuclear weapons and this sort of existential threat to Israel is not really so credible, and certainly I think most intelligence agencies seem to agree on that, then perhaps the conflict between Israel, the United States, and Iran to a large extent focuses on whether it’s a regional power, and its whole with Iraq, of course, is critical. But the other main way this is playing itself out is Iran’s relationship with Hamas and Hezbollah. This picture gets painted that this fight, especially in Lebanon, is essentially just a proxy war between the United States and Iran. What do you make of this?
GARETH PORTER, INVESTIGATIVE HISTORIAN: Well, first of all, I mean, Hezbollah maybe have started with the help of Iran and with a great deal of Iranian influence over the origins and the beginning of organization of Hezbollah. But very quickly it evolved into something which was quite independent of Iran’s influence, and makes its own decisions about its own national security, its own policies with regard to Lebanon, and its relations with outside entities as well. And obviously the Hezbollah leadership, Nasrullah, continues to consult with Iran on all matters relating to that part of the world, as any rational leader of a major political-military movement would do so when he is getting assistance from Iran. But to say that Hezbollah is simply an Iranian proxy obviously simplifies the matter beyond the point of having any relationship to reality.
JAY: Even if it’s not a proxy from an Israeli or American point of view, which these days seem to be more or less the same, would Hezbollah be as powerful without Iranian arms? Perhaps Iranian financing? That’s one of the accusations.
PORTER: Well, certainly without Iranian arms they could not continue to resist Israeli influence or the threat from Isreali military power, as we saw in 2006. I mean, Israel had overwhelming conventional military superiority over Hezbollah. Hezbollah had hoped to deter Israel from attacking by having Katyusha rockets by the thousands. It didn’t work. Israel decided to go in anyway, and I think for the purpose of eliminating what also constituted one of Iran’s major deterrents to an Israeli or US-Israeli attack on Iran.
JAY: And that certainly is one of the issues that’s being talked about a lot, that one of Iran’s defenses against attack is they could, quote-unquote, unleash Hezbollah against Israel at the same time.
PORTER: Absolutely. I mean, this of the essence of the Iran-Hezbollah tie. Iran’s primary interest in Hezbollah without any question is that Hezbollah represents part of the deterrent to an Israeli-US attack on Iran. So, I mean, that’s the nexus from the Iranian point of view. From the Hezbollah point of view, obviously, it’s also a way of trying to deter Israel from attacking Lebanon, although the ability of Hezbollah shown in 2006 to effectively resist on the ground in the villages of southern Lebanon was obviously equally, and now I think even more important, that Israel has learned a lesson from that. But is Hezbollah simply a way of attacking Israel? Well, I think you have to look at the record. Hezbollah’s behavior has been that they wanted to keep Israel out of southern Lebanon. That was their main interest. And what they did in 2006, crossing the border, right across the border, to grab a small group of Israeli troops was to have a bargaining counter to try to get Israel to release hundreds of Lebanese Shiite prisoners.
JAY: And Hezbollah, I think, themselves said that it was probably a mistake.
PORTER: They’ve now admitted it was a mistake, a miscalculation. They had reason to believe, based on previous episodes, that the Israelis would be willing to bargain over prisoners and that that was the misunderstanding.
JAY: So what you’re saying is the Iranian-Hezbollah axis, if you will, is mostly a defensive one.
PORTER: Well, from Iran’s point of view it’s defensive, and from, I think, Hezbollah’s point of view it’s defensive. But Hezbollah, of course, does not recognize the Israeli regime and supports Hamas and a Palestinian resistance. So from that point of view it has more than simply defense against Israel’s attack against Lebanon, southern Lebanon. So, obviously, there is an international alliance here against the Israel regime, which is part of the situation, no question about it. And Israel wants to remove Hezbollah, in large part because of that factor, Hezbollah’s relationships with Hamas.
JAY: To what extent does Iran, that you know of, how much is Iranian support for Hamas significant?
PORTER: Well, I assume that it is significant in terms of providing weapons. I don’t know the specifics of the amount provided, but certainly Hamas has gotten Iranian weapons.
JAY: And why is it in Iranian interests to do this?
PORTER: I believe that Iran’s position in relation to Hamas, as well as relations with Hezbollah, is to a great extent a bargaining chip, a set of bargaining chips. And if you go back and examine Iran’s behavior over the last few years and its relationship with the United States, it’s very clear that what Iran has been aiming at is ultimately a negotiated settlement with the United States. I think they viewed their nuclear program, their relationship with Hezbollah, their relationship with Hamas, their policy toward Israel as all part of a negotiating strategy, to win an agreement with the United States that would recognize the legitimacy of Iran’s position in the Middle East, introduce them officially into the Middle Eastern political international system of politics, give them a seat at the table, and remove the US military and economic pressures against Iran, the economic sanctions, financial sanctions against Iran.
JAY: And so the battle being waged in Washington right now is do you do that? Negotiate this grand settlement? Or go to war?
PORTER: Within the administration there is no battle. I mean, there has been no serious proposal by Condi Rice or anybody else within the administration, that they should take the route of a grand bargain, which is what the Iranians have been angling for for years.
JAY: But one seems to hear some indication the military would want that, and Obama seems to be opening that door.
PORTER: I think what the military has been saying is that they would like to have things settled to the degree that there is not a danger of a naval incident between the United States and Iran. I think that’s different from calling for a grand bargain. I don’t think the military leadership has the kind of vision that that would require.
JAY: Petraeus did call for a grand bargain over Iraq. In the congressional hearings, Petraeus said there is a deal to be made with Iran.
PORTER: Well, I think he may have said there was a deal to be made, but I think he had something else in mind. I think the military vision of this—bear in mind that Petraeus got his job as commander in Iraq, as well as his future job as commander of CENTCOM over the entire region, because he agreed to play ball with The White House, which means playing ball with Dick Cheney.
JAY: Well, in the next part of our interview we’re going to talk about Iran, Iraq, and the Bush administration. Please join us for the next part of this interview.
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