What’s at Stake for the West in Lebanon?
A briefing by David Wurmser
March 6, 2008
David Wurmser is a specialist on the Middle East and served as an advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney until recently. His prior positions included special assistant to John R. Bolton at the Department of State and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Wurmser is the author of numerous influential papers and three books, including Tyranny’s Ally: America’s Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein (AEI Press, 1999). In 2000, he contributed to the Middle East Forum’s Lebanon Study Group report, “Ending Syria’s Occupation of Lebanon: The U.S. Role,” which condemned Syria’s occupation of Lebanon. He received a Ph.D. in international relations from Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Wurmser addressed the Middle East Forum on March 6, 2008 in New York City.
“Iran’s Stake in the Levant”
Mr. Wurmser calls Lebanon a “key battleground between the West as a whole and the forces that seek to drag the Middle East down.” The situation in Lebanon must be viewed in the context of the larger conflict in the region, which is becoming far more dangerous. Two years after the Cedar Revolution in March 2005, which was brought on by the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese are still living through a tragedy. The inability to install a new president today is indicative of the situation. It is because of the size and success of the popular demonstrations by the Lebanese, however, that Lebanon has become the focal point of the enemies of the West, namely Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.
Mr. Wurmser focused on the Iranian strategy toward Lebanon, arguing that Iran is undergoing a transformation, not in the direction of reform as the West hopes, but from a pure theocracy toward a “theofascist state on the edge of an even more aggressive foreign policy.” This transformation in Iranian politics, according to Mr. Wurmser, is being played out in Lebanon and in Gaza.
Top American officials have made statements to the effect that U.S. and U.N. sanctions have hurt the Iranian regime, and that the support for former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and other figures deemed “moderate” in the December 2006 elections indicated the weakening of the Iranian regime. Mr. Wurmser asserts that this perception is false because it ignores the real indicators. Rather, a new power structure is emerging in Iran that is closely aligned with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For example, Ahmadinejad fired many government officials and replaced them with a group of hard-core members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Mr. Wurmser singled out Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejehei, whom Ahmadinejad placed in control of Intelligence, who espouses an aggressive anti-Western foreign policy and supports terrorism; and Saeed Jalili, whom Ahmadinejad appointed as head nuclear negotiator for Iran, is a veteran of the IRGC who was mutilated in the Iran-Iraq war.
Mr. Wurmser traced several of Ahmadinejad’s actions to Jalili’s 1990 book, Foreign Policy of the Prophet, arguing that Jalili’s writings, though they describe the time of Muhammad, are a blueprint for Iran today. Jalili cites an episode in which Muhammad told his followers to proselytize, not negotiate. In this spirit, Ahmedinejad has fired ambassadors and replaced them with more proselytizing ones. Jalili wrote about how Muhammad and his successors sent letters out to other tribes telling them to “convert or you will face the sword,” as well as to major powers in Byzantium and Persia. Mr. Wurmser linked this to Ahmedinejad’s sending similar letters to President Bush. He pointed out how the “language is lifted straight out of Jalili’s book, and that, in fact, “Jalili is the mind behind Ahmedinejad.”
Mr. Wurmser analyzed tensions between IRGC officers and the ayatollahs whom the officers believe “betrayed the will of Allah” when they signed the treaty ending the Iran-Iraq war. A separate group of ayatollahs, based in Mashhad in northeastern Iran, sees itself as true believers. This group considers the current state of Islam to be weak, and it seeks to expose the West as “a collapsing, hollow tree.” It expects the imminent return of the Twelfth Imam, the hidden Imam at the center of the Twelver Sh’ia movement of Islam. Its version of Islam is messianic and apocalyptic, and according to Mr. Wurmser, it provides the ideological basis for Iran’s shift to a more aggressive and risk-seeking stance against the West.
He also identified a radical change in Iranian’s notion of Islam. While the Iranian revolution defended Shi’ite interests and opposed Arab nationalism, over the past four years, “Iran has made a bold move to co-opt Arab nationalism.” The Arab-Israeli conflict has become a key issue on which Iran can attempt to seize leadership of the Islamic world from the Sunnis and Arabs. A central part of Iran’s national policy, Mr. Wurmser asserted, is to have an active war with Israel, be victorious, and seize leadership of the Muslim world. Iran’s success at assuming the mantle of Islam is evident in that in the past two or three years, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have recognized that Shi’ites are true Muslims, a concept that they had vehemently opposed previously.
Mr. Wurmser argued that Iran needs Syria in order to co-opt Sunni politics and Arab nationalism. He called Syria a “geographic gateway for Iran to be a player in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” and through this, to maintain the appearance of a successful Iranian revolution. Ahmedinejad came to power because it was thought that the Iranian revolution was weak. If Syria collapses, Mr. Wurmser thinks Iran will implode and that Syria is the avenue through which to attack Iran. Gaza is also a battleground for Iran, said Wurmser, citing that 80% of terrorist activity in Gaza is committed by a force trained in Iran that answers directly to Damascus and Tehran.
Mr. Wurmser considers things to have gone well for Ahmadinejad in the last few months. He compared Ahmadinejad’s bold opposition to the West and accusations of cowardliness on the part of followers who urge a more cautious policy to the way Hitler galvanized his generals in the 1930s by accusing them of lack of will. Disturbingly, each crisis increases Ahmadinejad’s reputation as his supporters rally round him.
In his recommendation for American foreign policy, Mr. Wurmser stressed that the United States must take into account how its policies are perceived in the Middle East. In 2003, when the United States acquiesced to the European acceptance of the Iranian regime as a legitimate interlocutor on nuclear issues, the Iranians read this as tacit acceptance and, therefore, weakness. During the same year, when the U.N. sanctioned the American presence in Iraq, Iran saw this as weakness on the American part because the superpower asked for permission to strike. Mr. Wurmser described the summer of 2003 as a “key moment, because the momentum the Iranian people were building against the regime was punctured by perceived American weakness.”
On the question of what concrete things the United States can do to support democracy in Lebanon, Mr. Wurmser emphasized the need for swift response to the assassinations of Lebanese leaders. At least six government officials have been killed since Hariri, but the U.S. response has been slow and ineffective. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Syria are “killing the Lebanese government out of existence.” Mr. Wurmser concluded that “the United States can have an effect if we show we are committed to acting to preserve what happened in March 2005” when the Lebanese staged the Cedar Revolution.
Summary account by Mimi Stillman