Written by Dr. Jonathan Spyer
It is obvious that given the true balance of power in Lebanon, the special tribunal investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri is largely a virtual exercise. As Michael Young pointed out in a column in the Beirut Daily Star this week, tribunal prosecutor Daniel Bellemare is currently on his end of year vacation and left without submitting draft indictments. This means that indictments cannot be issued before mid-January at the earliest.
Once they are issued, they will not be made public, but rather will be subject to the perusal of a pre-trial judge, Daniel Fransen. This process is likely to take up to a further two months, meaning that the very earliest a trial could begin would be late March or April.
At that point, if Hizbullah members are indicted, the movement will declare its nonrecognition of the court, and in real world terms, that is likely to be that.
But if this is the case, and it is, why is the Iran/Syria/Hizbullah camp so clearly jittery and worried by the events surrounding the tribunal? Why the wishful thinking in the newspapers evident this week, when the pro-Hizbullah Al-Diyar published a statement by Saad Hariri apparently abandoning the tribunal, which turned out to be entirely fictional?
More importantly, why the stark and repeated threats from Hizbullah and Iranian officials regarding the consequences if the Tribunal is not abandoned?
Hizbullah this week reiterated its promise to "cut off the hand" of anyone trying to arrest members of the movement. Many analysts saw the recent visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon as an act of preemptive intimidation. He was reminding Hizbullah's opponents just how strong it is, and just how determined its backers.
Even Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei descended this week from his lofty heights to issue a fatwa regarding the tribunal. "This tribunal is receiving orders from elsewhere," he said in a meeting with the emir of Qatar, before pronouncing "any ruling it hands down" as "null and void."
Hizbullah immediately hailed his words, interpreting them in the most unambiguous terms as supporting its war to the end on the tribunal. A Hizbullah MP, Walid Sucarieh, said that the statement was meant to "tell those who seek strife through the indictment: stay right there. We won't stand idle while the fire is burning our homes."
SO WHAT is the reason for the very obvious concern of the pro-Iranian axis regarding the tribunal, even though there is no way that its indictments or rulings can be enforced?
Firstly, it is important to differentiate in this regard between the stances of Syria on the one hand, and Iran and Hizbullah on the other.
The Iran-Syria alliance serves the purposes of both parties and is in no danger of fraying. This does not mean, however, that the interests of the parties are at all times identical.
Syria is currently engaged in a convoluted diplomatic process with Saudi Arabia to try to find a solution on the issue of the tribunal. The Syrians hope to make diplomatic gains by playing all sides against the middle, in their usual fashion.
The indications are that Syria itself has nothing to fear from the indictments, despite the near certainty that its officials were involved in the murder of Hariri, even if Hizbullah men were contracted to carry out the deed. Syria stands to pay no price. It looks likely to continue to be aligned with Iran, and courted by the West and the Arab states whatever the outcome of the tribunal issue.
But the serious project under way in Lebanon is not that of the Syrians.
Hizbullah is a long-term project undertaken by the Islamic Republic of Iran, with the intention of generating legitimacy and popularity for Teheran by engaging in a never-ending war with Israel.
For this purpose, Iran established Hizbullah, and has over time built it into a political-military juggernaut of a potency rarely seen in the Arabic-speaking world.
But to serve its purpose for its creator, it is not enough for Hizbullah merely to be powerful. A Hizbullah which dominates Lebanon through pure coercion cannot play the role intended for it by its patron. It must also appear legitimate.
That is to say, to perform its task for its Iranian masters, Hizbullah must appear to be simultaneously Shi'ite and pro-Iranian, but also authentically Arab. It must be seen as the sole force able to make Arab dreams of victory over Israel once more look feasible. The Hariri tribunal in no way offers a threat to the real power of Hizbullah.
The movement can defeat any combination of its domestic opponents, if it comes to a fight.
But if such a fight takes place, even though Hizbullah would win it, the ambiguity regarding its true nature would be gone. It would be revealed as a powerful, alien force, made possible by the money and guns of non- Arab Iran, and holding power purely by coercion. It is for this reason that Hizbullah has been so desperate to change the subject back to Israel in recent weeks.
In this way, it hopes to portray the part of its identity which the Arab world finds attractive - the "resistance" - as opposed to the part that threatens to be revealed by the tribunal indictments - the alien, Shi'ite, Iran-created force.
The latest events in Lebanon thus help to lay bare the contradictions of the Iranian project in the region. This means nothing in power terms. Hizbullah still dominates.
Its local opponents remain disarmed and helpless.
But it apparently matters enough to Iran and its local proxy to cause them to mobilize the heavyweights to stop the tribunal in its tracks.
So it remains likely that the special tribunal on Lebanon will be the proverbial mountain that gives birth to a mouse. But careful observation of the current events surrounding it show the inherent limitations of Shi'ite, non-Arab Iran's ambition to emerge as the dominant force in the region. As former Russian president Boris Yeltsin once put it in a rare moment of clarity, "You can make a throne of bayonets, but you can't sit on it for long."
Dr. Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Herzliya, Israel.