Gauging Iran's Influence on Hezbollah

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Scott Simon speaks with Ali Ansari, a professor at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, about Iran's role in the current fighting between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Iran is denying claims that it provides military support to Hezbollah, this after President Bush accused Iran of playing a role in the fighting. On Friday, Iran's foreign minister said his country offers only spiritual support to Hezbollah in the current crisis.

Ali Ansari is on the modern history faculty at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and is the author of the new book Confronting Iran. He joins us from St. Andrews. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor ALI ANSARI (University of St. Andrews): Very good to be with you.

SCOTT: And this is asserted so widely, and has been not just over these past few weeks, but for the years. Does Iran support Hezbollah more than spiritually?

Prof. ANSARI: Oh yes. I don't think there's any doubt about that. I mean, I think the Iranian foreign minister in particular is being very disingenuous at this time. I think there's been a considerable amount of financial support and of course logistical, I mean in terms of these rockets that have been sent over and other weaponry. And it was quite well known, I mean even in Iran, that Hezbollah were there as, in Iranian terms, as Iran's deterrence against Israel. I mean, that was the way they looked at it and they were quite happy to arm them in order to provide this special force on Israel's northern border.

SIMON: What about the assertion, and I think Mr. Bolton, the U.S. representative at the U.N. made it this week, that Iran in one way or another signed off on Hezbollah's action that precipitated this crisis? This was the capture and the killing of Israeli soldiers.

Prof. ANSARI: Yeah, it may be true, but we don't know. And I have my doubts that this particular crisis was triggered deliberately by Iran for the very simple reason, as I said to begin with, Iran views Hezbollah as its deterrent, it's a threat of force against Israel. It doesn't necessarily want to exercise that kind of force at this moment, even before it is very potentially attacked. And of course, it also assumes that the Iranians knew full well what the response was going to be in many ways. I mean, there's the other allegation that obviously they're trying to use it as a diversion away from the nuclear track.

Again, I mean I find that a little bit fanciful, to be perfectly honest. Another reason for it, is that actually the war and the crisis going on at the moment is not really being reported in any significant way in Iran. They're actually trying to calm popular fears in Iran about the potential for war. So in actual fact, a lot of the attention in Iran in the media is still on the nuclear crisis. It's not actually on what's going on in Lebanon, which is very strange, I have to say. I think that's very abnormal. The Iranians are not modest at all about talking about, you know, the various alleged crimes of Israel, and so to find that they're actually try to keep a lid on all this leads me to think that really that they would like this contained, they don't really want this to get out of hand either.

SIMON: Do Iran and Syria relate to each other?

Prof. ANSARI: Oh, certainly. I mean, there's been an alliance of sorts between Baathist Syria and the Islamic Republic around - really since the Iran/Iraq War. I mean, Syria was the only Arab country to back Iran in the Iran/Iraq War and that's largely because they detested the regime of Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq. But needless to say, in some ways, American policy and particularly the policy that's come from the presidency of George Bush, has encouraged them to cement stronger ties.

SIMON: Can you envision Iran putting an arm on Hezbollah at some point and saying, you've pushed this just about as far as you can go?

Prof. ANSARI: Oh, yes, absolutely. And I mean one of the remarkable developments, for instance, after 9/11 for instance, was that Nasrallah was in fact summoned to Tehran.

SIMON: Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah.

Prof. ANSARI: That's right. By a very frantic Iranian leadership, to be interrogated very rigorously, saying, you know, I hope to God you guys are not involved in this, because they knew what the response might be, and the Iranians, you know, I always say the relationship with Iran and Hezbollah is like cousins, you know, and they certainly have influence, they have said they may be willing to come in. But of course as this campaign in Lebanon increases, it's very difficult, I think, even for Hezbollah and Iran in terms of its Arab constituency, if I can put it that way, I mean, it wants to - it would be very difficult for them to basically come to some compromised solution now, given the amount of devastation that's occurred.

SIMON: Ali Ansari on the modern history faculty at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and author of the book Confronting Iran, speaking from St. Andrews. Thank you very much, Professor.

Prof. ANSARI: Thank you very much.

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