Assessing Hezbollah's Post-Conflict Power

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, sizes up Hezbollah's current military power. Burns also discusses how the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah has affected Iran's position in the region.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And let's move next to the cease-fire in Lebanon. An international peacekeeping force is expected to move into the southern part of the country. The foreign troops are supposed to join Lebanon's army. They'll all replace Israel's army and they'll be in an area dominated by Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party. It is not yet entirely clear what that multinational force will do.

This week we reached Nicholas Burns. He is the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, which makes him one of the top U.S. diplomats. Ambassador Burns, welcome to the program again.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs): Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: Let me start with a basic question. How is Hezbollah going to be disarmed?

Mr. BURNS: Well Hezbollah, I think, has actually suffered quite a significant setback in military terms, which gets to your question about disarmament. They had established on the border with Israel, from 2000 to 2006, an elaborate series of fortifications that allowed them to launch these cross-border attacks into Israel of the type that started the war 30 - more than 30 days ago. Those fortifications have been destroyed.

And what the international force that comes into Lebanon has to do is prevent those border fortifications from being built back up again, and also prevent Hezbollah from establishing the rocket forces in southern Lebanon, the rocket launchers that could then threaten northern Israel, and the million people who live in northern Israel.

INSKEEP: Does Hezbollah still have several thousand missiles?

Mr. BURNS: I don't know how many missiles they have, but they fired roughly four to five thousand missiles on Israel over the 30-day war.

INSKEEP: They were said to have 13,000.

Mr. BURNS: There are large estimates, and we know that Iran and Syria are keen to resupply them with those missiles. And so, the primary job of countering Hezbollah will be done by this international force in a defensive way, in order to make sure that Hezbollah no longer presents a threat to the state of Israel.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, I want to play a piece of tape. This is from Mohamad Chatah. He's a senior advisor to Lebanon's prime minister, and he spoke on this program earlier this week and described what the Lebanese army is not going to do as it moves into south Lebanon.

Mr. MOHAMAD CHATAH (Senior Advisor to Lebanon's Prime Minister): Our army is not there as an occupying force that's going to aggressively do search and seizures. That's not the point. The whole cabinet has already approved the deployment in principle a few days ago, and Hezbollah is part of that cabinet.

INSKEEP: If the Lebanese army is not disarming Hezbollah, who's going to do it?

Mr. BURNS: Well, he was referring to the Lebanese armed forces. There will be an international force of 15,000 men and women that will deploy alongside the Lebanese armed forces, and their job, as I said, will be to prevent the refortification of the border by Hezbollah, prevent the major rocket launchers from being stationed in southern Lebanon and thereby threatening Israel.

INSKEEP: Now, let's turn to Iran's role here, Ambassador. The Washington Post says Iran is already putting up something like $150 million for reconstruction in Lebanon. If Iran's money is flowing to the people of Lebanon and helping the people of Lebanon, how does that affect your job?

Mr. BURNS: Well, the Iranians were the ones who bankrolled Hezbollah, who sent the long-range missiles to Hezbollah, who actually created Hezbollah in 1982. And so, Iran bears a large measure of the responsibility for the fact that the war broke out in the first place.

And you know, the Iranians have a choice to make. They can choose to contribute along with the rest of us to a peaceful, secure and stable Lebanon, or they can choose to destabilize it by continuing to arm Hezbollah, which is not the government of Lebanon.

INSKEEP: Is Iran in some way in a stronger position today, having seen its allies come through this war?

Mr. BURNS: I don't think so, because what Iran is facing in two weeks' time will be the judgment of the U.N. Security Council on its nuclear program. It's quite isolated on that. I don't think the Lebanon war has strengthened its nuclear efforts. In fact, I think that the very aggressive and negative policies of the Iranian government have stoked a lot of concern among moderate Arabs.

INSKEEP: Is anybody from the U.S. government communicating directly with anyone in Iran's government at this time?

Mr. BURNS: You know, we haven't had diplomatic relations with Iran since 1979...

INSKEEP: Um-hmm.

Mr. BURNS: ...when they overthrew our embassy and took our hostages. But we do have contacts from time to time through the Swiss government, which is our - the United States protecting power in Tehran and has been for 26 years. But these contacts are mainly on paper. Messages go back and forth, but we don't have individual conversations with the Iranians.

INSKEEP: Are messages going back and forth right now?

Mr. BURNS: Well, certainly - the Iranian government does not have a problem of somehow trying to discern the views of the American government. We've been very clear publicly, as we have privately, about what needs to happen.

INSKEEP: Well you've been in the media, they've been in the media...

Mr. BURNS: Iran needs to stand down its nuclear ambitions.

INSKEEP: ...but are there messages going back and forth through that channel?

Mr. BURNS: Not recently, because it's crystal clear what the Iranians need to do.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Nicholas Burns, thanks very much.

Mr. BURNS: Thank you.

INSKEEP: U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

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