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Hezbollah Leader Assumes Higher Profile


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, spoke by telephone on Lebanese television yesterday. He said that Hezbollah is ready for outright open war with Israel.

Mr. Nasrallah had been the head of Hezbollah since 1992, and under his leadership, the organization has actually gained some respect in corners of the Arab world for its civic work and military victories against Israel, prompting Israel's withdraw from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Robin Wright covers the region for the Washington Post and joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. ROBIN WRIGHT (Washington Post): Good to be with you.

SIMON: You have interviewed this man who I guess you'd describe as kind of a cross between Ayatollah Khomeini and Che Guevara. What's he like? What do we need to know?

Ms. WRIGHT: He's the man who took over the movement at a very young age. He was only 32, which is - by the standards of Lebanon's aging warlords and its senior clerics - almost a kid. He has transformed the movement. He took it from being most famous for its bombings of American embassies and marine compounds and hostage seizures to a group that decided - his first big decision, in fact, was whether to join Lebanese politics.

In 1992 when he took over, he decided they should run for parliament. And there's been a gradual evolution within the movement as it penetrated deeper and deeper into conventional political society. Last year, when it ran again for the forth time for parliament, it decided that it would even join the government, and it holds two cabinet ministries.

This year, in a very unusual alliance, he buddied up with a right wing former general who is a Christian and is likely to be, or is now, one of the most popular candidates for president of Lebanon, which elections are next year.

SIMON: But although Hezbollah has been participating in parliamentary elections, they have not put down the gun.

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, that's the big issue, of course. It's the last private army in Lebanon. And it is very well armed, courtesy of Iran - estimated 13,000 rockets and missiles, much of, some of which has landed in Israel in the last couple of days. It is the most contentious issue inside Lebanon. And it really has to do with the final stage of unraveling its civil war.

And that is, can you push the control of the Lebanese states throughout all territory? As long as Hezbollah has its own defense or military strategy, as long as it has fighters along the border and its own military turf, the state is not in control of the whole country.

SIMON: The way you describe it - and forgive me for extrapolating too much - it's almost as if Hezbollah is trying to pull off what amounts to an armed coup, except they're fighting Israeli forces, not Lebanese ones. That by taking on the Israeli forces, they hope to capture the Lebanese government.

Ms. WRIGHT: Oh, I don't think so at all. One of the interesting things is the way the rhetoric has changed. That in the early days they were very critical of the Christians. And they talked about eliminating sectarianism altogether, because the Shiites now are a plurality of the 17 sects in Lebanon. They're now about 45 percent.

In any democratic elections they could win, but they've increasingly talked about saying we will continue with the sectarian system because we realize that the Christians would be too nervous. They realize that's of importance for the state.

But the issue is, is Hezbollah just a Lebanese force or is it a regional force? And I suspect one of the reasons this happened - and they decided to move across the border and nab these two Israeli soldiers - is in sympathy to what's happening with the Palestinians.

Hezbollah sees itself as not just another Lebanese faction. It seems itself as a regional player with a broader mission.

SIMON: And how do you feel about Syrian and Iranian influence?

Ms. WRIGHT: Well, I think Syria and Iran influence is very strong with Hezbollah. I mean Syria makes it logistically possible to get Iranian arms. But I also think that Hezbollah is also a very much an independent player that Nasrallah has - in the 14 years since he took over the movement - established himself as the one who makes a lot of the strategic decisions. It may take advice, encouragement from Iran in many ways.

But I'm not convinced, unless I see something tangible, that Iran actually ordered them to do this. This is part of Nasrallah's broader strategy.

SIMON: Would Nasrallah take a phone call from the United States?

Ms. WRIGHT: When I - it was the last question I asked him. I said, would you talk to the United States under any circumstances? And in fact he said under some circumstances he would. Needless to say, the United States will not talk to Nasrallah.

SIMON: And forgive me for making this such a quick question. When he says, I promise you victory, what is victory for him in this situation?

Ms. WRIGHT: I think he originally did this because he thought he could get a prisoner swap. I don't think he believed that there would be this prolonged, open warfare. I think he's negotiated a prisoner swap once for 766 in the past - two years ago, in fact. And he was, I think, looking for something like that again.

SIMON: Robin Wright, diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, and author of the upcoming book, Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East. Thanks so much for coming in.

Ms. WRIGHT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.