By Michael SlackmanInternational Herald Tribune
January 29, 2007
In an unusual collaboration that could complicate American policy in the region, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been mediating an agreement to end Lebanon's violent political crisis. Leaders of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed party trying to overthrow Lebanon's government, have recently visited the Saudi king in Riyadh, according to officials who attended the meeting. And Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi chief security adviser, has met with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Larijani, in Riyadh and Tehran to try to stop Lebanon's slide into civil war. "The only hope is for the Iranians and Saudis to go further in easing the situation and bringing people back to the negotiating table," said Radwan Sayyed, an adviser to Prime Minister Fouad Siniora.
The Saudi-Iranian efforts have put Washington in an awkward position, since it is trying to reduce Iran's regional influence. But since a stable Lebanon is also an American priority, American officials have watched the efforts without interfering. There is a belief in Lebanon that if the Saudi-Iranian effort succeeds, the result will be short-term. There remains fear that Syria, which retains influence with Hezbollah and within Lebanon's security services, will work to scuttle any deal. But Iran seems to be working in earnest. Members of Lebanon's governing party say the dynamics inside Iran, where the firebrand president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, appears to be losing political strength, have led Tehran to lean on Hezbollah.
One question is whether Hezbollah will do what Iran wants or will bend to the Syrians. Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said in a speech last week that an agreement "between two countries or two governments does not bind the Lebanese, because the Lebanese must seek their own interests and not the interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran." It has been nearly three months since Hezbollah began leading street protests aimed at bringing down the American-backed government here, and Lebanese political leaders have failed even to agree on the framework for talks.
There have been no direct meetings between the main political leaders in months. Many say they fear even more bloodshed if a deal is not struck by Feb. 14, the second anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The governing coalition plans to mark the anniversary with large street rallies at Mr. Hariri's grave site in the center of town. Those demonstrators would be separated by a few feet from the hundreds of opposition supporters who have camped out for nearly three months in their effort to bring down the government. Allies of Syria in the opposition have scolded the government for backing creation of an international tribunal to hear evidence in the assassination of Mr. Hariri and other political killings. Syria has been implicated in the killing by a United Nations investigation, and one of Syria's allies in the opposition says that if the government backs down on the tribunal, the crisis would ease. But the fight is also over who will be the next president, whether Hezbollah will be allowed to keep its weapons, how to rewrite the nation's electoral laws, whether United Nations troops will remain on the southern border with Israel and, more fundamentally, whether Lebanon will lean toward the United States and Europe or Iran and Syria. There have been proposals that each side has presented as compromises only to be rejected by the other as insufficient. "It is true, whoever governs will decide Lebanon's political direction," said Muhammad Fniesh, a senior member of Hezbollah who said he recently attended a meeting with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been involved in Lebanese affairs for decades. Saudi Arabia has close ties with the Hariri family and has invested large sums of money rebuilding Beirut. Recently as Iranian backed parties have taken over in Iraq and as Iran has tried to establish itself as the regional superpower, Saudi Arabia has begun, at American urging, to press back. Seeking to fill the vacuum left by Egypt, whose regional influence has diminished, Saudi Arabia has tried to position itself as an Arab counterpoint to Iran. But in Lebanon, political leaders and diplomats said, both see a common interest in calming sectarian tensions, at least for now. The fight has effectively divided the country between the predominantly Shiite Muslim opposition and the predominantly Sunni Muslim governing alliance. Lebanon's Christian community is divided between the two. The eagerness to look beyond Beirut for a solution comes as Western diplomats here say they fear that local leaders have abrogated their responsibility to foreign powers. Even Lebanese leaders say internal talks are going nowhere. "Nothing much is moving," said Ali Hamdan, an adviser to Nabih Berri, the speaker of Parliament and leader of Amal, a Shiite party in the opposition. "It is as if we are moving backwards."
Most agree that if there has been any major movement in resolving - or defusing - Lebanon's political crisis, it has more to do with the changing political dynamics elsewhere. "Saudi Arabia and Iran are near an agreement," said Toufic Sultan, a former leader in the main government-aligned Druse party who has maintained close ties to Saudi officials. Already reeling from the chaos and sectarian strife in Iraq, governments around the region are worried that Lebanon, too, is on the brink of breaking apart along sectarian lines.
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