July 17, 2006.
Reporting for this article was contributed by Nazila Fathi from Tehran,
Suha Maayeh from Amman, Jordan, Mona el-Naggar from Cairo and David E.
Sanger from Vermont.
BEIRUT, Lebanon – With the battle between Israel and the Lebanese militia
Hezbollah raging, key Arab governments have taken the rare step of blaming
Hezbollah, underscoring in part their growing fear of influence by the group’s
main sponsor, Iran.
Saudi Arabia, with Jordan, Egypt and several Persian Gulf states, chastised
Hezbollah for “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible acts” at an
emergency Arab League summit meeting in Cairo on Saturday.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said of Hezbollah’s attacks on
Israel, “These acts will pull the whole region back to years ago, and we cannot
simply accept them.”
Prince Faisal spoke at the closed-door meeting but his words were
reported to journalists by other delegates.
The meeting ended with participants asserting that the Middle East
peace process had failed and requesting help from the United Nations Security
It is nearly unheard of for Arab officials to chastise an Arab group engaged in
conflict with Israel, especially as images of destruction by Israeli warplanes are
beamed into Arab living rooms. Normally under such circumstances, Arabs are
not blamed, and condemnations of Israel are routine.
But the willingness of those governments to defy public opinion in their own
countries underscores a shift that is prompted by the growing influence of Iran
and Shiite Muslims in Iraq and across the region.
The way some officials see it, Arab analysts said, Israel is the devil they know,
but Iran is the growing threat.
“There is a school of thought, led by Saudi Arabia, that believes that
Hezbollah is a source of trouble, a protâgâ of Iran, but also a political
instrument in the hands of Iran,” said Adnan Abu Odeh, a Jordanian sociologist.
“This school says we should not play into the hands of Iran, which has
its own agenda, by sympathizing or supporting Hezbollah fighting against the Israelis.”
Hanna Seniora, a Palestinian analyst with the Israel/Palestine Center for
Research and Information, lauded the Arab opposition to Hezbollah on Sunday.
“For the first time ever, open criticism was heard from countries like
Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan against the unilateral actions carried out by
radical organizations, especially Hezbollah of Lebanon,” wrote Mr. Seniora, who
favors coexistence with Israel and opposes radical Islam.
“It became clear and beyond doubt that the most important Arab
countries did not allow their emotions to rule their judgment.”
The willingness of the leading governments to openly defy Arab public opinion,
which has raged against Israel’s actions in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip,
underscores the readjustment of risks Arab governments say they face.
That criticism could pressure Hezbollah to give up its weapons. It could also
help American efforts to contain Iran.
“Who’s benefiting?” asked a senior official of one of the Arab countries
critical of Hezbollah who was granted anonymity because he was not
authorized to speak publicly. “Definitely not the Arabs or the peace process.
But definitely the Iranians are.”
There may be no material proof of Iran’s involvement in the conflict, the senior
official added, but all indications point to an Iranian role.
Arab leaders have long been wary of Iran. But with Iran exercising
increased influence in Iraq and stirring the emotions of Arab and Muslim masses
frustrated about the occupation of Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and
America’s role in the region, fear of Iranian influence has increased.
“You have Hezbollah, a Shiite minority, controlled by Iran, working, and the
Iranians are embarrassing the hell out of the Arab governments,” said Riad
Kahwaji, managing director of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military
Analysis in Dubai.
“The peace process has collapsed, the Palestinians are being killed and
nothing is being done for them. And here comes Hezbollah, which is actually
scoring hits against Israel.”
From its start in 1982, Hezbollah has relied on Iranian support and weapons,
and logistical support from Syria. Iran has made no secret of its support for
Hezbollah, and in recent months boasted to visiting scholars about providing it
Israel has accused Iran of providing Hezbollah with sophisticated weaponry and
said Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard has trained guerrillas in Lebanon.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamidreza Assefi, brushed
aside the accusations on Sunday. Mr. Assefi denied that Iran had trained
guerrillas in Lebanon, and added: “It is not true that we have sent missiles.
Hezbollah is capable enough. The Zionist regime is under pressure.”
A number of Lebanese have also publicly complained about Hezbollah, saying
its attack on Israeli soldiers last Wednesday was carried out unilaterally and has
drawn the country into a conflict it did not seek.
At the Arab summit meeting on Saturday, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid
Moallem, lashed back at the critics of Hezbollah, The Associated Press
reported, demanding, “How can we come here to discuss the burning situation
in Lebanon while others are making statements criticizing the resistance?”
The countries supporting Syria included Yemen, Algeria and Lebanon.
In a speech broadcast on Sunday, Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah,
derided the Arab criticism. “It is clear that they are unable as governments and
leaders to do anything,” he said. “The people of the Arab and Islamic
world face a historic chance to achieve a historic victory against the Zionist