Dispatch

Did Hezbollah Kill Hariri?

A new tribunal is digging up old secrets about the Lebanese prime minister's assassination. And no one is likely to be happy with the results.

The murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, caused a political earthquake in Lebanon and ignited several years of violence and government deadlock. Although the Lebanese have recently enjoyed a period of relative political calm and economic stability, aftershocks of the Hariri assassination now once again threaten to plunge the country back into turmoil.

The trigger for renewed conflict is mounting speculation that the powerful Shiite militant movement Hezbollah might have had a role in the former premier's death. According to numerous press reports in Lebanon, citing sources close to the investigation, an international tribunal investigating the plot has discovered evidence linking members of Hezbollah to the assassination.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah attempted to stamp out the growing speculation by confirming that the tribunal had questioned 12 individuals connected to the party as "witnesses, not suspects," adding that another six people could be summoned for questioning. He claimed that allegations were intended to weaken the "resistance," a term used for the party's formidable military apparatus.

"We have been a target for years," he said. "Destroying Hezbollah is a dream. The objective is to distort Hezbollah's image and pressure and intimidate the party."

A United Nations-led investigation initially linked Syria to the assassination, though Damascus has always denied involvement. The shift in the investigation's direction toward Hezbollah does not mean that Syria is off the hook, argue several Western officials and diplomats who have received briefings on aspects of the tribunal's findings. But, they add, it suggests that the tribunal is having difficulty in uncovering hard evidence that could be used to indict senior Syrian figures. One of the officials said that the tribunal's intention in pursuing Hezbollah was to "shake the tree" and see what other leads emerge.

Hezbollah's lack of motive makes it unlikely that the party would have acted on its own initiative in killing Hariri. True, Nasrallah and Hariri were poles apart politically -- the latter envisioned a Lebanon newly recovered from the 1975-1990 civil war playing a role as financial and tourist entrepôt for the Middle East. Nasrallah, on the other hand, saw Lebanon chiefly as the front-line bulwark against Israel and the expansion of U.S. influence in the region.

The two men grew close in the last months of Hariri's life, holding a series of secret meetings in Nasrallah's heavily guarded home, beginning in June 2004. Snacking on coffee and fruit, they discussed weighty regional affairs such as the Iraq war, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and their shared fears of Sunni-Shiite strife.

Mustafa Nasr, Hariri's advisor for Shiite affairs, who attended the meetings, told me in 2005 that the two men had a genuine rapport and shared much in common on a personal level, even if their visions for Lebanon remained different.

Given the lack of motive, it has been mooted that elements within Hezbollah might have cooperated in the planning of the assassination with an external power, presumably Syria, without the knowledge of the party's leadership. If true, this would raise all manner of intriguing questions about Hezbollah's internal command and control. Then again, if Nasrallah had known of the plot against Hariri but was powerless to intervene, what thoughts must have gone through his mind when the two of them met in his headquarters for their convivial chats?

Hezbollah circles have been abuzz with speculation in recent days over the tribunal's intentions. There is a universal belief among Hezbollah cadres and their supporters that the tribunal is being manipulated by the United States to attack the party.

Recent conversations with two Hezbollah military unit commanders suggest that mitigating the potential fallout from the tribunal's investigation has become a top priority for the party. The two commanders agreed that before Israel can be confronted, Hezbollah has to ensure that it will not be "stabbed in the back" by its Lebanese opponents. This requires building a political and public consensus in Lebanon to block the tribunal from moving against Hezbollah, they said.

Any domestic attempts to take advantage of the tribunal to weaken Hezbollah would be "slapped down," they said. They also refused to rule out the possibility of a show of force on the streets, as occurred in May 2008 when Hezbollah overran the mainly Sunni western half of Beirut following an attempt by the U.S.-backed Lebanese government to shut down the party's private military communications network.

For now, however, Hezbollah has limited its response to denying any involvement in Hariri's murder and questioning the tribunal's credibility. On Wednesday night, Nasrallah accused the tribunal of leaking information implicating Hezbollah, warning that if the leaks continue he might halt his cooperation with the investigation.

Last week, the office of Daniel Bellemare, the tribunal's chief prosecutor, said it took "strong exception" to allegations that it was deliberately leaking information to the media. Yet it is no secret that some Western officials are given periodic briefings on the tribunal's work, allowing them insights into the investigation's direction, if not all the key details. It can be safely assumed that the Syrian and Iranian governments do not receive the same courtesy.

Such briefings and leaks (authorized or not) make it easier for critics to challenge the credibility of the tribunal. Since its inception, the tribunal has had to defend itself against accusations that it is a political instrument, serving the interests of the United States and France under the respective leaderships of former President George W. Bush and former French President Jacques Chirac. The two countries supported Lebanon's call for an international investigation into the Hariri murder because it would pressure Syria, the prime suspect. If Israel had been the chief suspect, there never would have been an international investigation and tribunal.

But political calculations in the Middle East have changed since 2005, and there are no guarantees that the outcome of the investigation will be to the liking of the powers that supported it in the first place. Saudi Arabia and France have recently patched up their differences with Syria, and Washington has embarked upon a hesitant re-engagement with Damascus. Syrian influence in Lebanon has steadily returned, causing the March 14 coalition, which spearheaded the anti-Syrian campaign in Lebanon from 2005, to crumble. Saad Hariri, Rafiq's son who was appointed prime minister last year, swallowed his personal feelings to travel to Damascus in December to embrace Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Walid Jumblatt, a fierce critic of Syria and Hezbollah following Hariri's murder, also underwent a political U-turn. He apologized in a TV interview for his harsh words about Assad, which had previously included references to the Syrian president as a "monkey, a snake, and a butcher." In a reflective mood some 18 months ago, Jumblatt told me that Lebanon could have "justice [for the slain Hariri] or stability, but not both." He discreetly declined to tell me which option he preferred, though the answer was obvious. On Wednesday, the Druze leader was rewarded for his volte-face with a long-awaited meeting with Assad in Damascus.

It is difficult to envisage how Lebanon can avoid a serious political crisis if the tribunal issues indictments against Hezbollah officials. In that event, Saad Hariri will face an unenviable dilemma. On Monday, he reiterated his support for the tribunal, saying that it was a "big component of stability in Lebanon." "We will accept any decision that comes out of the tribunal, whatever it is," he said.

But he and his coalition government, which includes a member of Hezbollah, are in no position to compel the Shiite party to turn over anyone indicted by the tribunal, which presumably would conduct the trials in absentia. Such a scenario, however, would lead to the absurd situation of a Lebanese government declining to comply with the demands of a tribunal that is partially funded by Lebanon, includes Lebanese judges, and has been championed from the beginning by the Lebanese state.

Since 2005, supporters of Rafik Hariri and his son, Saad, have clamored for al-haqiqa -- "the truth." Yet, "the truth" may end up being more than the country can bear.

JOSEPH BARRAK/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Is Turkey Trying to Sink or Save Iran?

Ankara's emboldened stance on Iran is spooking some in the West. But is the country's newfound independence just for show?

An otherwise predictable Arab League Summit held last weekend in Sirte, Libya, was enlivened by the presence of a special guest. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to the podium on the summit's opening day to denounce the "madness" of Israeli designs over Jerusalem, referring to the holy city as "the apple of the eye of each and every Muslim."

Such rhetoric has earned Turkey, currently ruled by the mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party, widespread praise in Arab circles. But Ankara's newfound assertiveness in the Middle East has not been limited to fiery speeches. In the past two years, the country has launched mediation efforts between Syria and Israel, encouraged Iraq's Sunni leaders to participate in the political process, and attempted to bridge sectarian divisions in Lebanon.

There is little doubt that Turkey's leaders, and particularly its visionary foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, have a new vision for their country's international role. What is less clear is if Turkey can fulfill its more grandiose ambitions. At the moment, skeptics argue that Turkey's regional influence is little more than talk. And a nearing collision on Iran sanctions could prove a crucial test of whether Turkey is ready to back up words with action.

Certainly, Turkish officials are enjoying their moment in the limelight. "People never used to ask us our opinion" at the United Nations, assuming they would toe the Western line, noted Selim Yenel, a deputy undersecretary in Turkey's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "Now, they ask us."

But Turkey's new independence has provoked more than a little apprehension in the United States and Europe, where some officials look back nostalgically to the country's Cold War-era loyalty to the Western bloc. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent visit to the country was marred by widening disagreements on a number of fronts, from the issue of Turkey's accession to the European Union -- which Merkel is trying to scuttle -- to Turkey's objection to another round of sanctions on Iran. "We must first try to find a diplomatic solution," Erdogan argued in a recent interview with Der Spiegel. With U.S. President Barack Obama now saying that he wants a vote on sanctions within "weeks," Turkey might find itself forced to choose sides sooner rather than later.

And Turkey might indeed have the ability to broker a diplomatic solution to the problem of Iran and its rogue nuclear program. Turkey has a unique combination of economic and diplomatic tools at its disposal: It has a strong economic partnership with the Islamic Republic, with which it conducts approximately $10 billion in trade annually; Erdogan has also cultivated close ties to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he refers to as a "friend." At the same time, Turkey holds a seat on the U.N. Security Council, where it is a potential swing vote on any upcoming sanctions resolutions.

I recently traveled to Turkey, along with a number of American and Armenian journalists, on a trip sponsored by the economics-oriented think tank TEPAV, which is funded by the Union of Chambers of Turkey, the Turkish equivalent of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. TEPAV organized meetings for us with Turkish officials and businessmen -- and in our discussions, it became clear that the Turks are scrambling to defuse a situation that could undermine the country's growing international clout, and reverse its recent economic progress.

On our second day in Ankara, we headed to Turkey's presidential palace, known as Cankaya Kosku. From this sprawling 100-acre campus, rising above Ankara from the south, Ataturk engineered the transformation of the Ottoman Empire into the Turkish Republic. We were there to meet with its current inhabitant, President Abdullah Gul. Gul is a mild-mannered politician who has nonetheless earned the ire of the Turkish military, which attempted to thwart his ascension to the presidency in 2007 due to his previous sympathy for Islamist-inspired political movements.

Gul was quick to frame Turkey's opening to Iran as a form of realpolitik, necessitated by the country's geographic proximity. Iran is a "real state in the region, different from the other states in the Middle East" whose borders were forged after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. What's more, its influence in the region is growing -- a fact that Turkey has to appreciate. "All of Iran's influence in Iraq is due to the actions of our friends," he said with a smile, reminding his U.S. guests of their country's role in shaping regional realities.

Gul described the primary obstacle in reaching a deal with Iran as the intrinsic lack of fairness in international efforts to pressure the country. "There is a major confidence crisis on the part of the Iranians that prevents progress," he noted. Iran thinks that it is being targeted not because it has violated universally applied principles, but as part of a plot to weaken the Islamic Republic. This belief causes Iranian leaders to retreat to instinctive anti-Americanism in their public statements. "In private meetings, Ahmadinejad has a different rhetoric," Gul asserted. "He understands this is heading in a dangerous direction."

However, there is another way forward, announced Gul: "the elimination of all nuclear weapons from the Middle East." Yes, of course, he opposes Iran's nuclear program -- but he also opposes Israel's possession of a nuclear arsenal. The call for a nuclear-free Middle East has emerged as the centerpiece of Turkey's Iran policy and the best case study available of Turkey's independent course in the region. Gul assured us this is more than a rhetorical ploy designed to balance criticism of all sides equally. On the contrary, "the goal here would be to ensure the security of Israel."

A few short miles northwest of the presidential palace sits the Ministry of Foreign Affairs -- off of Ismet Inonu Boulevard, named after Turkey's second president and protector of Ataturk's legacy -- where Turkey's energetic diplomats attempt to add substance to this concept. Feridun Sinirlioglu, the under secretary for foreign affairs, argues that Turkey is bolstering international support for containment efforts by condemning both Iran and Israel equally. "There is a problem of legitimacy on efforts to contain Iran," Sinirlioglu said. "If we tell Iran that the aim is to have a nuclear-free region, it will be easier to mobilize international support."

Although Turkey's rhetoric might discourage those hoping to enlist its aid in isolating Iran, the government might not be as uncompromising as it appears to be. Most importantly, officials show a quiet appreciation of the risks posed by Iran's nuclear program. "I do believe that their final intention is to have a nuclear weapon, because it is related to their national pride," Gul stated. If this comes to pass, Turkey's already precarious neighborhood could explode -- undermining a decade's worth of economic and diplomatic progress. Iranian leaders "would not use [nuclear weapons], but would start behaving in an irrational manner and would create problems for themselves" argued Gul, citing the dangers of a confrontation with the Gulf regimes in particular.

When it comes to sanctions, there is also likely more latitude to Turkey's position than it lets on. By taking a firm line now, Ankara may hope to prevent a resolution on sanctions from coming to the floor of the U.N. Security Council. However, if the United States can avoid vetoes from Russia and China, few expect Turkey to stand in the way. "All options for Turkey are undesirable" on Iran, noted Soli Ozel, a professor at Istanbul's Bilgi University and a frequent commentator. "But if push comes to shove, Turkey will side with its allies."

This has less to do with principle than Turkey's post-Republic orientation toward the West. Breaking with the United States and Europe over such a crucial issue would represent a fundamental split with the Western alliance, a step few think Turkey is willing to take. In this sense, Turkey appears less as an assertive, independent actor in the Middle East and more as a developing power caught between two stronger poles. "We're telling both sides that we're not doing a favor to you," Sinirlioglu said. "We're doing this for our benefit, because we're in the middle of this."

That is an eminently logical position -- but a far cry from the more grandiose statements made by Turkey's boosters. Turkey's diplomatic efforts have achieved their short-term goal of staying on good terms with all sides, but have failed to resolve their long-term goal of lowering tensions between Iran and the West. It is no secret what it will take to defuse this looming confrontation: an international effort that both coaxes and pressures Iran to agree to international verification of the peaceful use of its nuclear program. If only there were a newly assertive regional power to lead the way.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images