One clear result of the cease-fire in Lebanon is the newfound respect for Hezbollah throughout the Muslim World. Hezbollah was already a power in Lebanon — both as a political party that ran its own schools, social services and hospitals but also as an armed force that could and did challenge the Lebanese military in order to make its own rules.
Its deadliness as a terror organization is well known. With the longstanding support of Iran and Syria, Hezbollah or one of its precursors has waged war against the United States for more that two decades. But these days, having demonstrated the ability to withstand a monthlong Israeli assault, Hezbollah has finally achieved mythic status on the Arab Street.
And as if that wasn’t enough, mere hours after the cease-fire was proclaimed by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Hezbollah — armed not with antitank missiles but with $150 million of Iran’s petrodollars — began performing all the humanitarian functions that the governments of Lebanon, the United States, and the European Union are still just talking about. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke recently about “witnessing the birth of a new Middle East,” I don’t think this is what she had in mind.
All this newfound respect for Hezbollah in the Arab Street portends a potential tectonic shift in the Middle East, with the Shi’ite crescent on the rise orchestrated by Iran that could sweep from Lebanon through Iraq and all the way through the Gulf. This would cause profound shock waves throughout the region where there are Shi’ite minorities. This would be a severe blow to U.S. objectives for the region.
That is why at this critical junction, the United States needs to seize the initiative to dampen the euphoria over Hezbollah’s recent actions, thwart the rise of a potential Shi’ite crescent, refocus the world on Iran’s dangerous nuclear plans, and get some respect of its own in the region.
Iraq provides the immediate venue for all of these goals. There are clear indications of Iranian support for the Shi’ite death squads in Iraq. And agents of Iran’s Seppah-e Pasdaran, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, train and arm the Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr’s private militia, the Mahdi Army.
As long as the Mahdi Army is a viable force, it will be Iran’s strongest surrogate in an attempt to thwart U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq. The Mahdi Army must be neutralized and disarmed. Failure to do so will only lead to an Iraqi Hezbollah — another state within a state with all the dangerous consequences that follow.
One hopes Iraq’s prime minister will support such an action. But with or without him, the U.S. must crush the Mahdi Army quickly and eliminate the radical Shi’ite Muqtada al-Sadr. These actions must be followed by the Iraqi government immediately providing all the necessary social, humanitarian, and security services to fill the vacuum left by the Mahdi Army’s elimination.
Such a decisive action now will send a clear message to Tehran that acts to achieve its objectives will not go unanswered. It may also garner United States some much-needed respect. Because to the Arab Street, winning hearts and minds doesn’t count for much. On the Arab Street, respect means everything.
James A. Lyons, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, is a former commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet (the largest single military command in the world), senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.