Hassan Nasrallah, the dreadful Shiite cleric who commands the Lebanon-based Hezbollah movement, couldn’t get what he wanted.
He had plunged his militia into the war in Syria, he had helped turn the tide of war in favor of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and he had bragged about the prowess of his fighters. Yet he had asked that the fight for Syria be waged only on Syrian soil.
The two bombings that hit the Iranian embassy in a Hezbollah neighborhood of Beirut on Tuesday should have delivered to Nasrallah a truth known to all protagonists in this fight. There are no easy victories, no way that the fire could rage in Syria while life went on as usual in Beirut.
It was Nasrallah — and by extension his Iranian paymasters — who wrote the grim new rules of the Syrian war. Assad hadn’t been able to prevail against the Sunni rebellion. The Russian weapons and Iranian money, deployed on his behalf, hadn’t sufficed.
The Iranian desire for a measure of deniability had come up against the incompetence of Assad’s armed forces: The dictator’s supporters were barbarians, but defections from the ranks, and the flagrant sectarian base of his regime, had forced the Iranians into the open. This is when Iran decreed the entry of Hezbollah into the fight.
It didn’t matter whether Nasrallah and his lieutenants were enthusiastic about this new mission beyond Lebanon’s borders. The Hezbollah leaders are at once players in the Lebanese political game and self-professed soldiers in Iran’s revolutionary brigades. The effective leader of Hezbollah isn’t Nasrallah in his bunker, but Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in Tehran. Iran’s power and money and protection raised Nasrallah, a child of Beirut’s most wretched slum, to his position as mightiest warlord in Lebanon.
Iran may have been pressed for money at home, hobbled by sanctions, but the money kept coming to Beirut. There was money for Hezbollah’s gunmen, there was a television station, Al Manar, that spread Iran’s message. A vast relief network enabled Nasrallah to pose as a benefactor of impoverished Shiites and to ask his followers for ever greater sacrifices. Nasrallah’s mission was clear: He and his fighters were to make Iran a power of the Mediterranean and, by way of Lebanon, a veritable neighbor of Israel.
Once Iran had committed itself to Assad’s survival, Hezbollah forces were on their way to Syria. This war kept no secrets. At first, Hezbollah fighters who fell in battle were given quiet burials. Their death notices were ambiguous — they died while performing “jihadi duty.”
A vicious battle last May for Qusayr, a town near the Lebanese border, shattered the ambiguity. Hezbollah fighters prevailed at a price. Their triumphalism was abhorrent. They defied the sensibilities of Sunnis everywhere. They raised Shiite banners atop a Sunni mosque. There had been an unwritten pact that all parties to the sectarian feuds of Lebanon would keep a distance from Syria’s struggle, lest the divisions tear Lebanon apart.
For the Sunnis of Lebanon, once masters of the coastal cities of Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli, Qusayr was a summons to battle. They had watched Hezbollah gunmen overrun their beloved West Beirut; they had seen Shiite squatters from the southern hinterland and Bekaa Valley swamp Beirut and alter its demography. They had bristled at the emergence of Iran and its embassy and its agents as a power in their midst.
The two suicide bombers who struck the Iranian embassy, one on a motorcycle and the other behind the wheel of a car loaded with more than 100 pounds of explosives, were Lebanese members of al-Qaeda, “two heroes of the Sunnis of Beirut,” according to a statement on Twitter.
The Sunni jihad in Syria had come to Beirut, and Nasrallah and his Iranian masters have to accept that this was the war they made. Iran plays a double game. It feigns respectability in regional affairs; it even wants a role in the negotiations over Syria, if and when these negotiations materialize. Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, described Syria in an article under his name in the Washington Post as a “civilizational jewel,” even as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah fighters have heaped grief and loss on Syrian civilians.
But the attack in Beirut is a stark confirmation that Iran has run out of deniability for its deeds in Syria.
Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and author of The Syrian Rebellion.