Page last updated at 16:25 GMT, Thursday, 5 June 2008 17:25 UK

Iran's Lebanese 'aircraft carrier'

By Hugh Sykes
BBC News, Beirut

Alam Shourab
Hezbollah supporters say Iran's role is only fair, given US support for Israel

Indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria over a possible return of the Golan Heights have major implications for the Lebanese political and militant organisation Hezbollah.

A peace deal with Israel is likely to be conditional on Syria severing its connections with Hezbollah, but it would also remove Syria as the bridge to the group's other state backer, Iran.

In Hezbollah's stronghold in southern Beirut, Alam Shourab, a young manager of a mobile phone shop, is very happy with the movement's dependence on Iran.

Here dozens of buildings and bridges that were bombed by Israel during the summer war in 2006 are being rapidly and impressively rebuilt mostly with funding from Iran.

Iranian influence is definitely up. When Syria left in 2005 there was a vacuum which was filled by Iran
Oussama Safa, Lebanon Centre for Policy Studies
"I think this is a good thing," he told me, "Israel is supported by America, so there's nothing wrong with Hezbollah being supported by Iran."

The support is considerable. At the Carnegie Endowment independent think tank in Beirut, Paul Salem put it in a nutshell: "Hezbollah was set up, established, trained, armed, financed... wholly by Iran."

He says Hezbollah has about 50,000 salaried employees and "a large modern army" - most of whom are paid with money from Tehran.

Fact on the ground

One of Hezbollah's 14 members of the Lebanese parliament, Nawar al-Sahili, readily admitted it will be a problem for Hezbollah if the Syrian bridge from Iran is cut by a peace deal between Syria and Israel: "It will be difficult, but it will not be impossible."

Beirut scene
Reconstruction funded mainly by Iran is part of Hezbollah's PR message
I asked Maitre Sahili (he's a French-trained Beirut lawyer) if Hezbollah agreed with the Iranian president's statements about the future elimination of Israel.

No, he said: "Israel is a fact now. And we are acting with this fact. Our border is the Lebanese border".

He told me Hezbollah has no desire to conquer Israel, just to recover Lebanese prisoners and land they say is still occupied by the Israelis.

Would Hezbollah ever allow itself to be used by Iran in a greater strategy against Israel? "Definitely not, I can assure you," Nawar al-Sahili replied.

Paul Salem agrees that Hezbollah is meant as a deterrent to Israel and the US, not a threat to Israel's existence.

"For Iran it's like an aircraft carrier. The US parks aircraft carriers in the Gulf next to Iran; Iran parks it's own aircraft carrier in Lebanon - Hezbollah - which can wreak great destruction on Israel at a moment's notice."

But Iran is trying to gain a stronger foothold in Lebanon, according to the director of the Lebanon Centre for Policy Studies, Oussama Safa.

"Iranian influence is definitely up. When Syria was forced to leave Lebanon in 2005 there was a vacuum which was filled by Iran.

"The Iranian drive to gain more influence in Lebanon is to give them a direct influence without having to go through Syria.

"That's possibly in preparation for a eventual peace deal between Syria and Israel."

Cone conciliation

Away from Beirut's Hezbollah heartland, I met people who deeply resent the growing power of Hezbollah.

Haagen Dazs promotion.
Lebanese businesses are always on the look-out for new sales opportunities
Cafe owner Jihad Hakim is still furious about last month's incursion into west Beirut by Hezbollah fighters, who fought street battles and burned down one of the studio complexes of Future TV.

"It was an invasion!" he said. "These people, they get all their orders from you know who, from Iran, from Syria. Iran wants a little army here."

He was being restrained. Another man said it was a case of Hezbollah "raping the Lebanese capital, then setting her free and asking for a kiss".

But the Hezbollah tactic worked. With the Doha agreement, mediated by the Arab league, Hezbollah and its allies in the unity cabinet will have a new power over government decisions.

There are posters all over parts of the capital now proclaiming: Beirut Back to Life. And Haagen-Dazs ice-cream were really quick off the mark.

Their posters say: Taste the Reconciliation - with the Doha Agreement Cone.

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