Writing from southern Lebanon in the mid-to-late 1970s, during the continuing war of attrition between Israel and the PLO and at a time when the country's long-relegated Shiite minority was just beginning to get itself organized, I noticed the presence of an almost unremarked token force of Iranian troops. These had been dispatched by the Shah of Iran, who (as we tend to forget) was ever-mindful of his title Shadow of God and of his anointed role as protector of the Shiites. Commenting more presciently than I knew, I said that these soldiers would probably be needed back home before too long to safeguard the peacock throne.
At that time, it would have been entirely impossible to picture any Iranian head of state visiting multicultural Lebanon as a plenipotentiary and being feted all the way to within yelling distance of the Israeli border. Yet last week President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad managed this feat almost without effort. A man who has managed to escape serious inconvenience for his illegal pursuit of nuclear weapons and who has pitilessly repressed and cheated his own people can appear on neutral soil as the patron of the Party of God because his regime shares that party's pitiless attitude toward the state of Israel and its biting contempt for all the Arab and Muslim "moderates" who would even consider a compromise with it.
In a way, an even more dramatic measure of the progress of Hezbollah and its patrons involves a comparison with only a few years ago. In February 2005, former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was blown to shreds in broad daylight, his murder capping a series of assassinations of politicians and journalists who had been critical of the Syrian presence in their country. So immense was the democratic popular revulsion against this criminality that Damascus was compelled to withdraw its occupying forces, and an international tribunal was convened to investigate the complicity of the Syrian Baathists, and by implication their holy Hezbollah proxy, and in turn that proxy's other supporter in Tehran. Aided, in my opinion, by the momentum created by the fall of Saddam Hussein, and encouraged even by French support for the relevant U.N. resolutions, the local prestige of the United States became very high.
Now mark the sequel. The leaders of all other parties and factions in Lebanon, from Christian to Druze, cringe with fear when the name of Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is mentioned. The once-vaunted tribunal, long stalled, has been pre-empted by highly credible threats of violence if its belated findings turn out to be awkward for Syria or Hezbollah. The son of the murdered Hariri, like the son of the previously murdered Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt, has been forced to "make nice" in the most degrading fashion with the capo Bashar Assad, whose family almost certainly slew the heads of theirs. And the Party of God possesses two vetoes, one over the outcome of any Lebanese election it does not win and another on the timing of the next war with Israel to be launched from Lebanese territory.