Hezbollah first became known to the Lebanese public in 1985 with its now-famous open letter, whose introductory statement read: “We are the sons of the umma (Muslim community)—of the party of God (Hezbollah), the vanguard of which was made victorious by God in Iran. … We obey the orders of one leader… that of our tutor and faqih [i.e., Ayatollah Khomeini]
.” A year later Hassan Nasrallah, then an officer associated with the party’s consultative council and now its supreme leader, made the organization’s overall goals and strategy unmistakably clear: “We are incapable at the present time of installing the rule of Islam, but this does not mean postponing our ideology and project … We must work hard to achieve our goal, and the most important means of doing so is to transform Lebanon into a society of war.
It has been argued that Hezbollah’s 2009 manifesto, which revised the open letter, underscored the organization’s diminishing revolutionary zeal and growing acceptance of Lebanon’s permanence. Yet a careful reading of the manifesto shows it to be merely playing with words, recognizing Lebanon as “our homeland” but not as a legitimate nation state. Indeed, far from being in a “continuous process of identity construction,” Hezbollah has striven during the past few years to overcome its limitations and promote its ultimate goal of transforming Lebanon into an Islamic state modeled after Iran’s wilayat al-faqih (the guardianship of the jurist).
Undermining the Lebanese State
Hezbollah needed physical space to spread its propagandizing mission and to carve out a constituency in the hearts of Lebanon’s Shiites. Even before the party’s official formation, proto-Hezbollah militants clashed with the police in the southern suburbs of Beirut. They seized on President Amin Gemayel’s (1982-88) attempt to clamp down on Muslim militias and restore state authority as evidence of his hostility to Muslims in general (and Shiites in particular) and transformed themselves from an innocuous movement committed to religious guidance and education into a full-fledged politico-military party.
It was not particularly difficult for Hezbollah to undermine the role of the state in Shiite areas like Beirut’s southern suburbs and the Bekaa Valley. Shiite quarters were poverty-stricken, and in northern Bekaa, the birthplace of Hezbollah, the state was virtually nonexistent. Thanks to generous Iranian contributions, Hezbollah took it upon itself to provide its impoverished constituency with basic services, such as water and sanitation, usually provided by a state. It successfully traded services for loyalty and proceeded to its next objective of becoming the sole Shiite hegemon.
Controlling the Shiites
Efforts to organize the Lebanese Shiites into a political movement of their own began to take shape in 1974 when Imam Musa Sadr, an Iranian cleric of Lebanese origin, ushered in political Shiism and founded the Movement of the Dispossessed. The movement soon built up a militia and, a year later, acquired a new name, the Amal (Hope) movement. Sadr’s success in rallying coreligionists behind him had much to do with his determination to place the impoverished Shiites on Lebanon’s political map and bring an end to the condescending treatment they received from other sects, as well as the Sunni preference for keeping them powerless.
From its beginnings, the Amal movement opted to play by the rules of Lebanese confessional politics—provided the Shiites were no longer overshadowed by Sunnis—and was prepared to this extent to collaborate with the Maronite establishment. Yet the rise of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon after its 1970 eviction from Jordan interfered with Sadr’s plans to transform Shiites into a major actor in Lebanese politics. The imam disliked the presence of armed Palestinians in southern Lebanon but carefully avoided clashing with the PLO since it was politically incorrect for Muslim politicians to deny the organization’s right to fight Israel. At the same time, Sadr forged an excellent working relationship with the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad.
Sadr’s mysterious disappearance in Libya in 1978 and the success of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution in Iran less than a year later had a dramatic effect on Lebanon’s Shiites. Thanks to the size of the Shiite community and the country’s joint border with Israel, Lebanon featured prominently in Khomeini’s efforts to export his Islamic revolution.
Nabih Berri, who took charge of Amal in 1980, explicitly positioned it against the Palestinians and tried to challenge them militarily. His ideological laxity and political utilitarianism eventually eroded the movement and “plagued it with moral degradation.” Since Amal did not present itself as a sufficiently credible ally, it became incumbent upon Khomeini to create a new politico-military group for his purposes. Tehran at the time wanted to respond to the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) support for Baghdad in its war against Iran by creating an ideological base of support within an Arab country. As time went on, its local agency in Lebanon had grown strong enough to establish for itself a niche in the Shiite community. It soon targeted the Shiite Left and eliminated its prominent activists and ideologues, such as Hassan Bazzuni, a member of the central committee of the Political Action Organization, the communist thinker Hussein Mrouei, and academician Hassan Hamdan (aka Mahdi Amel), through assassination.
After decimating the Shiite Left, Hezbollah turned its attention to fighting the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and its local surrogate, the Southern Lebanese Army (SLA), before taking on Amal and driving it out of Beirut’s southern suburbs, a task completed by 1988. A year later, Hezbollah resumed its offensive against Amal in those parts of southern Lebanon outside the control of the IDF and the SLA. The Iranians and Syrians intervened to normalize relations between the two Shiite forces and established a new balance of power that recognized Hezbollah’s preeminence.
Upon Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Hezbollah shifted its main emphasis to consolidating its grip on the Lebanese political system and completing the construction of its own ideal society. The outcome of this process was the creation of a distinct Hezbollah community that looked to Iran for inspiration and directives.
Monopolizing the Fight against Israel
In tandem with its effort to gain control of Lebanese Shiites, Hezbollah moved to monopolize the fight against Israel, which had begun in 1982 as the objective of the largely secular National Resistance Front (NRF). Those religious groups that had merged to create Hezbollah in 1985 did not initially participate in the low-grade anti-Israel guerrilla warfare that was at first led by Lebanese communists, members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and remnants of the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. But by 1987, Hezbollah had taken control of the access routes to the Israeli-established security belt in southern Lebanon, which effectively rendered the NRF useless and led to its disbanding. Hezbollah also introduced its own military wing, the Islamic Resistance. It banned any group from launching independent operations and stipulated that all fight under its flag and name.
Hezbollah soon introduced its own reductionist definition for patriotism; terms such as “the liberation of Shib’a Farms and Kfar Shuba Hills,” “Hezbollah’s deterrent military capability,” and the “sanctity of the triumphant resistance” became nonnegotiable precepts of the Lebanese political parlance. Questioning the legitimacy of Hezbollah’s military wing and its arsenal became synonymous with “conspiracy against the resistance, collusion with Zionism and U.S. imperialism.”
Finding a Non-Ideological Maronite Partner
In Lebanon’s confessional politics, it is a must for any political group representing a major sect to affiliate with a counterpart from another major sect in order to navigate the turbulence of the political system. Shortly after the conclusion of the 1989 Ta’if agreement, which ended the decades-long Lebanese civil war, Hezbollah came to realize it needed to “to portray itself as a principal promoter of Muslim-Christian coexistence … through multi-confessional representation.” Unable to identify with the Lebanese Force or the Phalange, whose ardent nationalistic ideologies clashed with its universalistic Shiite aspirations, Hezbollah eventually found a partner in the Christian former Lebanese Army commander, Michel Aoun, who was said to nurse a grudge against fellow Maronite politicians for denying him the presidency in 1988. After fifteen years of exile in France, he returned to Lebanon in 2005 and took up the reins of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) which he had led in absentia. In accordance with the logic of Lebanon’s confessional politics, FPM and Hezbollah needed each other, and, in 2006, they signed a memorandum of understanding that enabled them to pursue their distinct interests under the guise of unity.
Marginalizing the Sunnis
Before turning against the Sunni political and security establishments, Hezbollah needed to eliminate independent-minded and outspoken Sunni clerics because of their ability to frame religious identity through politics. This context helps to explain the 1982 assassination of the director of the Union of Islamic Associations and Institutions in Lebanon, Sheikh Ahmad Assaf; the head of the Supreme Islamic Shari’a Council, Sheikh Subhi as-Salih, in 1986, and the grand Sunni Sheikh Hassan Khalid in 1989. Assaf possessed strong organizational capabilities and displayed a powerful sense of communal identity whereas Salih had challenged the Twelver Shiite imamate and the wilayat al-faqih concepts, both of which under-girded Hezbollah’s ideology. Sheikh Khalid’s crime was to attempt to convince the GCC countries to lead a new Arab deterrent force to free Lebanon from the Syrian stranglehold. This was completely unacceptable to Hezbollah whose prospects of achieving success hinged on excluding GCC influence and relying on Damascus.
The 1989 Ta’if agreement ensured that pro-Syrian Shiites and Maronites would control the country’s political, security, and judicial apparatus. But the return to Lebanon of Sunni business tycoon Rafiq Hariri from Saudi Arabia shortly thereafter upset the political balance that Hezbollah had sought in its favor. In 1992, a majority of parliamentary deputies designated Hariri their favorite candidate for the office of prime minister. His meteoric rise to power threatened Hezbollah’s efforts to dominate the Lebanese political scene, especially since he received the unconditional backing of Saudi Arabia and the West.
Hezbollah concluded that Hariri represented a threat to be eliminated, a view shared by Tehran and its Syrian henchman, Hafez’s son Bashar al-Assad. Hariri’s influence was unacceptable and contradicted the pattern of fading Sunni power in the region, and thus he was assassinated in 2005. In June 2011, the U.N. Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) indicted four Lebanese suspects linked to Hezbollah in connection with the assassination. Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has categorically refused to turn them in because “the STL is an American-Israeli tribunal, and the four indictees are our brothers in resistance who have an honorable record.” The Hariri assassination brought to an end his project of reconstructing postwar Lebanon along political and economic lines that favored Saudi Arabia and the West. Thus, a formidable hurdle was removed from the path of Hezbollah’s designs for Lebanon.
Saad Hariri, Rafiq’s son and political heir, lacked the acumen and foresight to continue his late father’s policies, let alone keep Hezbollah in check. The key to Hezbollah’s getting away with the assassination required dismantling Hariri’s private intelligence outfit, the information section of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF). Hariri wanted to take advantage of the tradition that enabled Sunnis to lead the ISF and to attach an intelligence component to it to counter control of the Deuxieme Bureau (military intelligence) by Shiites and their Maronite allies.
Instead, Hezbollah began a new reign of terror. In 2006, Samer Shihada, an investigator into the Hariri assassination, was the victim of an attack that killed four of his security guards and convinced him to emigrate from Lebanon. In 2008, Wisam Eid, a captain in the information section of the ISF, was murdered in an explosion linked to his investigation of the mobile communications used by the hit team that assassinated Hariri. Eid’s innovative investigative techniques had alarmed Hezbollah officials, who told him “that some of the phones he was chasing were being used by Hezbollah agents conducting a counterespionage operation against Israel’s Mossad spy agency and that he needed to back off.” In 2012, a major explosion in east Beirut killed the chief of the information section, Wisam Hassan, only a few hours after his return to Lebanon from a foreign trip. The identity of Hassan’s assassins has not been established, but the fact that Hezbollah completely controls security in Beirut’s international airport casts suspicion as to who might have committed the act. Hassan’s elimination from the scene ended once and for all the security challenge that the information section had presented to Hezbollah.
Hezbollah also used proxies to embroil its Sunni opponents in debilitating scandals. For this, the group prefers to use pawns such as Fayez Shukr, secretary general of the Lebanese Baath Party, and Wi’am Wahhab, chief of the minuscule at-Tawhid Druze party, and especially the pages of al-Akhbar, Iran’s mouthpiece newspaper in Lebanon.
During the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, al-Akhbar made its debut, coinciding with Hezbollah’s charge that Saad Hariri’s Future Trend (FT) party and Saudi Arabia were colluding with the U.S. and Israeli governments to destroy the group. In 2010, the newspaper fabricated charges against Tariq al-Rab’a, head of the administrative planning department for mobile phone operator Alfa, thereby playing a decisive role in his arrest by military intelligence on suspicion of communicating with the Mossad and giving the Israelis access to the Lebanese mobile network. The arrest of Rab’a, a Sunni from Beirut’s Tariq al-Jadida neighborhood, bastion of Hariri’s political support, occurred with the help of partisans of Hezbollah’s Maronite ally Aoun, who have taken charge of the Ministry of Telecommunications and Alfa Mobile and framed a case against Rab’a.
More recently, al-Akhbar has sought to implicate Hariri’s Future Trend in the arming of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighting Bashar al-Assad. It featured on its front page the transcript of an alleged conversation between a member of Hariri’s parliamentary bloc and a representative of the FSA requesting arms. While the FT may actually be acting as a liaison between the FSA and arms providers, the newspaper simultaneously ignored Hezbollah’s role in fighting alongside the Assad regime’s forces.
As a totalitarian political party, Hezbollah cannot survive without a military component and will not accept anything less than full control of the Lebanese political system. The problem of Hezbollah, which possesses the premier military force in Lebanon, is its inherent incapability to transform itself into a genuine domestic political force in fear that “its legitimacy [would] become equal to ordinary political groups that accept the rules of accommodation.” This in turn means that Hezbollah has not abandoned its goal of creating an Islamic state of Lebanon.
Hezbollah has indeed gone a long way to achieving its objective of controlling Lebanon since its humble 1985 beginnings. It dominates the country’s domestic and foreign policy and operates a military machine superior to the national army. It has the final say on making governmental, administrative, and judicial appointments, and its interaction with Lebanese political groups has shown that it has no intention of truly assimilating into Lebanese political practices, not least since its Islamist Shiite orientation precludes its ability for a meaningful dialogue (as opposed to tactical alliances) with the Sunnis. Moreover, the Iranian paradigm of wilayat al-faqih, to which Hezbollah subscribes, baffles many critical-minded Shiites. Not surprisingly, Ahmad al-Asaad, leader of the fledgling Shiite party, the Lebanese New Option Gathering, believes that “we must get rid of Hezbollah in order to build a viable state.”
The winds of change are transforming the Middle East and are bound to leave their mark on the course of events in Lebanon. Syria’s uprising is unlikely to bring democracy to the war-torn country, but it will almost certainly alter the existing balance of power in Lebanon. The specter of a Sunni resurgence in Syria is already haunting Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hilal Khashan is a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
 “An Open Letter, The Hezbollah Program,” as-Safir (Beirut), Feb. 16, 1985.
 Ibid., Apr. 12, 1986.
 Joseph Alagha, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2011), p. 33.
 “Hezbollah Manifesto,” Moqawama.org, Islamic Resistance in Lebanon, Nov. 30, 2009.
 Alagha, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction, p. 22.
 As-Siyasa (Kuwait City), Aug. 1, 2011.
 Akif Haydar, al-Ashia Biasma’iha: Min Ajl Lubnan Afdal (Beirut: Sharikat al-Matbu’at li-l-Nashr wa-l-Tawzi, 1995), p. 51.
 Khalil Ahmad Khalil, Naqd at-Tadlil al-Aqli: Shi’iat Lubnan wa-l-Alam al-Arabi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasa al-Arabiyya li-l-Dirasat wa-l-Nashr, 2001), p. 59.
 Haydar, al-Ashia Biasma’iha, p. 66.
 Waddah Sharara, Dawlat Hezbollah: Lubnan Mujtama’an Islamiyyan (Beirut: Dar an-Nahar, 1997), pp. 160-220.
 Hilal Khashan and Ibrahim Mousawi, “Hizbullah’s Jihad Concept,” Journal of Religion and Society, vol. 9, 2007, pp. 25-6.
 Nadia Aylabuni, “Niqat Muthira fi an-Niqash hawla Hezbollah,” in Ahmad Abu Matar, ed., Hezbollah: al-Wajh al-Akhar (Amman: Dar al-Karmil, 2008), p. 58.
 Sheikh Muhammad Yazbek, Ayatollah Khamene’i’s representative in Lebanon, sermon, accessed Dec. 28, 2012.
 Alagha, Hizbullah’s Identity Construction, p. 41.
 Muhammad Surur Zayn al-Abidin, Ightial al-Hariri wa Tada’iyatih ala Ahl as-Sunna fi Lubnan (London: Dar al-Jabiya, 2007), p. 22.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Al-Manar TV (Beirut), July 2, 2011.
 Naharnet News Website (Beirut), Nov. 23, 2010.
 Al-Akhbar (Beirut), Dec. 13, 2010.
 Ibid., May 15, 2012.
 Ibid., Nov. 29, 2012.
 Turki al-Hamad and Maza Yurid al-Sayyid, “Hassan Nasrallah wa Hezbollah?” in Ahmad Abu Matar, ed., Hezbollah: al-Wajh al-Akhar (Amman: Dar al-Karmil, 2008), p. 52.
 Steven Simon and Jonathan Stevenson, “Disarming Hezbollah,” Foreign Affairs, Jan. 11, 2010; “Hezbollah Dominates Lebanese Government,” The Jewish Policy Center, Washington, D.C., June 15, 2011; “Hezbollah,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2012.
 “Hezbollah,” The New York Times, Aug. 15, 2012.
 See Adel Hashemi Najafabadi, “Imamate and Leadership: The Case of the Shi’a Fundamentalist in Modern Iran,” Canadian Social Science, no. 6, 2010, pp. 192-205; Ahmad al-Katib, at-Tashayu as-Siyasi wa-t-Tashayu al-Dini (Beirut: Mu’asasat al-Intishar al-‘Arabi, 2009), p. 118.
 As-Siyasa, May 4, 2009.
Papal visit to Iraq: Breaking historic ground pockmarked by religious and political minefields
When Pope Francis sets foot in Iraq on Friday, he will be breaking historic ground while manoeuvring religious and political minefields. So will his foremost religious counterpart, Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husayni al-Sistani, one of the Shia Muslim world’s foremost scholars and leaders.
The three-day visit contrasts starkly with past papal trips to the Middle East that included Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, states that, unlike neighbouring Iran, are more accustomed to inter-faith interactions because of their Sunni Muslim history and colonial experience or in the case of Shia-majority Azerbaijan a modern history of secular and communist rule.
Unlike in Azerbaijan, Pope Francis is venturing in Iraq into a Shia-majority country that has been wracked by sectarian violence in which neighbouring Iran wields significant religious and political influence and that is home to religious scholars that compete with their counterparts in the Islamic republic. As a result, Iraqi Shiite clerics often walk a tightrope.
Scheduled to last 40 minutes, Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s meeting with the pope, a high point of the visit, constitutes a double-edged sword for a 90-year-old religious leader born in Iran who has a complex relationship with the Islamic republic.
Ayatollah Al-Sistani has long opposed Iran’s system of direct rule by clerics. As a result, he has eschewed executive and political authority while playing a key role in reconciling Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis, promoting inter-tribal and ethnic peace, and facilitating the drafting and ratification of a post-US invasion constitution.
Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s influence, however, has been evident at key junctures in recent Iraqi history. Responding to an edict by the ayatollah, Iraqis flocked to the polls in 2005 despite the risk of jihadist attacks. Large numbers enlisted in 2017 to fight the Islamic State after Ayatollah Al-Sistani rallied the country. The government of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned in 2019, four days after Ayatollah Al-Sistani expressed support for protesters demanding sweeping reforms.
To avoid controversy, Ayatollah Al-Sistani is likely to downplay the very aspects of a meeting with the pope that political and religious interlocutors of the head of the Catholic church usually bask in: the ability to leverage the encounter to enhance their legitimacy and position themselves as moderate and tolerant peacemakers.
With state-controlled media in Iran largely refraining from mentioning the visit and Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claiming the mantle of leadership of the Muslim world, Ayatollah Al-Sisi is likely to avoid projecting the encounter as a recognition by the pope that he is Shiite Islam’s chief interlocutor or that the holy Iraqi city of Najaf, rather than Iran’s Qom, is the unrivalled capital of Shiite learning.
Sources close to Ayatollah Al-Sistani, who rarely receives foreign dignitaries, have described his encounter on Saturday with the pope as a “private meeting.”
“Khamenei will not like it,” said Mehdi Khalaji, an Islamic scholar who studied in Qom and is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Critics are likely to note that Ayatollah Al-Sistani was meeting the pope but had failed to receive in December Iranian Chief Justice Ebrahim Raisi, who is touted as a potential presidential candidate in elections scheduled for June and/or successor to Ayatollah Khamenei.
Mr. Khalaji noted that Iran has long downplayed Ayatollah Al-Sistani’s significance that is boosted by the fact that he maintains a major presence not only in Najaf but also in Qom where he has a seminary, a library, and a clerical staff.
Shiite scholars suggest that is one reason why Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani are unlikely to issue a Shiite-Christian equivalent of the Declaration of Human Fraternity that was signed in Abu Dhabi two years ago by the pontiff and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based historic cathedral of Islamic learning.
“Al-Sistani does not want to provoke Khamenei. There is no theological basis to do so. Muslims cannot be brothers of Christians. Mainstream Islamic theological schools see modern Christianity as inauthentic. They view Jesus as the divine prophet, not as the incarnation of God and his son. In short, for official Islam, today’s Christianity is nothing short of heresy,” Mr. Khalaji said, referring to schools of thought predominant in Iran. “Sunnis are a little bit more flexible,” he added.
Mr. Khalaji noted further that Shiite religious seminaries have no intellectual tradition of debate about inter-faith dialogue nor do any of the offices of religious leaders have departments concerned with interacting with other faith groups. “The whole discourse is absent in Shia Islam,” Mr. Khalaji said.
That has not stopped Ayatollah Al-Sistani from maintaining discreet contacts with the Vatican over the years.
In a bid to popularize the concept of inter-faith dialogue, Pope Francis is scheduled to hold a multi-religious prayer meeting in Ur, the presumed birthplace of Abraham, revered as the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
By the same token, Pope Francis, concerned about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and particularly Iraq that has seen the diverse minority shrink from 1.2 million before the 2003 US invasion to at most 300,000 today, will want to build on the Shiite leader’s past calls for protection of the minority faith group from attacks by militants and condemnation of “heinous crimes” committed against them.
The pope hopes that a reiteration by Ayatollah Al-Sistani of his empathy for the plight of Christians would go a long way in reducing pressure on the community from Iranian-backed militias that has stopped many from returning to homes they abandoned as they fled areas conquered by the Islamic State.
The pope’s visit, little more than a month after a bomb blast in Baghdad killed 32 people and days after rockets hit an airbase housing US troops, has sparked hope among some Iraqis that it will steer the country away from further violence.
That hope was boosted by a pledge by Saraya Awliyat Al-Dam (Custodians of the Blood), the pro-Iranian group believed to have attacked the airbase, to suspend its operations during the pope’ visit “as a sign of respect for Imam Al-Sistani.”
Said Middle East scholar Hayder al-Khoei: “There will be no signing of a document, but both (Pope Francis and Ayatollah Al-Sistani) are advocates of interfaith dialogue and condemn violence committed in the name of religion. The meeting will undoubtedly strengthen the voices and organizations who still believe in dialogue.”
Iraq Opens Hands to the Pope Francis’ Historic Visit
The world looks forward to Pope Francis’ historic visit to Iraq which is considered the first papal trip represented by the Roman Catholic Church to the cradle of civilization, Mesopotamia, despite spreading the second wave of COVID-19 and the security situation in Iraq. This expected visit has an important impact on highlighting the challenges and disasters of humiliation, the sectarian war and displacing people, Yazidis persecution, and fleeing the Christian minorities that faced Iraq during all these past years after the US invasion occurred in 2003.
The three-day-visit is considered as the message of peace after years of war and violence, referring that the Pope’s visit is as a pilgrim to the cradle of civilization. The papal visit includes Baghdad, Erbil, Mosul- Qaraqosh, and Ur city. The trip comes after 18 months as the pandemic restricts his movement, and it is the first visit to the Middle East when he visited the U.A.E in February 2019 where he met and celebrated in front of 180,000 people at the Zayed Sports City stadium in Abu Dhabi.
The papal visit was intended to occur twenty years ago when St. John Paul II tried to visit Mesopotamia during Saddam’s regime, but the endeavors failed to complete that proposed trip. “The people of Iraq are waiting for us. The people waited for St. John Paul II who was not permitted to go. We cannot disappoint them twice”, said the Pope.
In a video message addressed by the Pope to the people of Iraq, he expressed his happiness and longing to meet the people who suffered from war, scourges, and death during all these years. “I long to meet you, to look at your faces and to visit your blessed ancient land and the cradle of civilization,” the Pope said.
It is expected that the purpose of the Pope’s visit is to preserve the rest of the Christians in Iraq. According to the estimation of the charity aid of the Church in Need, the numbers of Christians have decreased from 1.4 million to under 250,000 since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, especially in the cities of northern Iraq. Many Christians were killed and fled from 2014 to 2017 due to the Islamic State occupation and due to their atrocities, persecution, and violence against the Christian areas. The Pope yearns for meeting the dwindling Christian communities in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and Nineveh plains where these regions had suffered from the atrocities of ISIS in 2014 and people had been compelled to flee.
The world is waiting for the most significant historic meeting between the 90-year-old Shia Muslim cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the 84-year-old Pope Francis in the Shiite shrine city of Najaf. The expected meeting is seen as a real chance to enhance the bonds of fraternity between the Muslims and Christians and to lighten the impact of the islamophobia concept that swept Europe and America due to the terrorism actions that happened in Europe. This expected meeting that will be by Saturday signifies a historic moment when the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani meets Pope Francis, illustrating the fraternal bonds to make people live in peace and tranquility.
Back in February 2019, the Pontiff Francis and Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque and the most prestigious leader in Sunni Islam, agreed and signed the declaration of fraternity, affirming peace among all nations. The two parties in this document adhere to fight extremism in every place in the world. If the Pontiff and the Grand Ayatollah sign a document like the declaration of fraternity, this will give Najaf’s Marjiya a very great impact, and this move will be seen as the first step to decrease the religious tensions and fill the gap of the clash of civilization. This document, if it is enacted, will have a great impact to make peace prevailing and encouraging Muslims and Christians to live in peaceful coexistence.
Ur, which is the oldest city in the world, is to be visited by the pontiff. It is considered the biblical birthplace of Ibraham, the common prophet to the Christians, Muslims, and Judaism and the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It is expected that there will be prayers in Ziggurat where this place is one of UNESCO world heritage sites. This visit to this historic site will help the landmark to polarize people from Iraq and outside to visit it after years of negligence and ignorance attention to its importance and the vital role that can help Iraq to increase the public income.
The papal visit has many different messages to the people of Iraq. Firstly, the expected meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reflects the fraternal and human stances, and this meeting underlines the important role played by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani after the US-led-invasion in 2003. Secondly, his visit to Ur to pray there is a message of the peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, trying to point out that all these three religions emerged from one source. Thirdly, the Pope endeavors to be with the Christians who suffer from the past events of persecution, humiliation, and atrocities. His presence among them is a message of tranquility, serenity, peace, and contentment to live in Iraq with the Muslims and to abandon fighting against others. Finally, the Pope’s visit to Iraq pays the world’s attention to the religious importance of Iraq and the significant role that can be played by Iraq.
Restart Iran Policy by Stopping Tehran’s Influence Operations
Another US administration is trying to figure out its Iran policy. And, as always, the very regime at the core of the riddle is influencing the policy outcome. Through the years, the clerical rulers of Iran have honed the art of exploiting America’s democratic public sphere to mislead, deceive, confuse, and influence the public and government.
Yet Washington still does not have a proper taxonomy of policy antidotes when it comes to Tehran’s influence operations.
Arguments dictated by Iranian intelligence services echo in think tanks and many government agencies. These include the extremely misguided supposition that the murderous regime can be reformed or is a reliable negotiating partner for the West; or that there is no other alternative but to deal with the status quo.
How has Tehran been able to deceive some in the US into believing such nonsense? First, by relying on the policy of appeasement pursued by Western governments. And second, through its sophisticated influence operations facilitated by that policy.
Consider three recent instances.
First. Just last month, an Iranian “political scientist” was charged by the Justice Department for acting as an unregistered agent of Iran and secretly receiving money from its mission in New York. “For over a decade, Kaveh Afrasiabi pitched himself to Congress, journalists, and the American public … for the benefit of his employer, the Iranian government, by disguising propaganda as objective polic1y analysis and expertise,” the Justice Department noted.
Afrasiabi has an extensive body of published work and television appearances. In July 2020, according to the Justice Department, he linked many of his books and hundreds of articles in an email written to Iran’s Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, saying: “Without [Zarif’s] support none of this would have been possible!”
Second. Across the Atlantic, one of Zarif’s official diplomats in Europe, Assadollah Assadi, was convicted and given a 20-year prison sentence by a Belgian court on February 4 for trying to bomb an opposition rally in the outskirts of Paris in June 2018.
Court documents revealed that Assadi crisscrossed Europe as Tehran’s intelligence station chief, paying and directing many agents in at least 11 European countries.
Assadi’s terrorist plot in 2018 was foiled at the last minute. The main target was Maryam Rajavi, the President-elect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). Hundreds of Western lawmakers and former officials were also in attendance.
Third. Unable to harm its opposition through terrorism, the regime has expanded its influence operations against NCRI’s main constituent organization the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), which Tehran considers its arch nemesis.
For decades, the mullahs have misled, deceived, and confused America’s Iran policy by disseminating considerable disinformation about the democratic opposition. This has in turn resulted in bungled American responses to Tehran’s threats.
In a breaking revelation this month, a former Iranian intelligence operative wrote a letter to the UN Secretary General, outlining in glaring detail how the regime’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) recruits, pays, and controls dozens of agents across Europe to influence policy.
Forty-one-year-old Hadi Sani-Khani wrote that he was approached by intelligence agents who lured him into the Iranian embassy in Tirana, Albania (MEK’s headquarters). He said he wants to go back to Iran. On one condition, the embassy responded: Cooperate with the regime’s intelligence against the MEK. He subsequently met with the regime’s intelligence chief, Fereidoun Zandi, who coordinated a network of paid agents in Albania since 2014. The intelligence chief was later expelled by Albanian authorities along with the regime’s ambassador.
Khani was paid 500 euros per month to write and publish anti-MEK articles and also send copious amounts of similar propaganda to members of the European parliament. Dozens of websites are operated by Tehran’s intelligence, some of which are, astonishingly, undeclared sources for unsuspecting Western journalists, think tanks and government agencies when it comes to the MEK.
In many cases, reporters have met directly with the regime’s intelligence agents for their stories. In September 2018, for example, according to Khani, a reporter from German newspaper Der Spiegel traveled to Albania. Khani recalls: “We met the Der Spiegel reporter in a Café in Ramsa district in Zagozi square. Each of us then told her lies about the MEK which we had been given in preparation of the meeting. … [Later on,] she occasionally asked me questions about the MEK which I then raised with the embassy and provided her the response I received.”
Der Spiegel published the story on February 16, 2019, parts of which were copied from websites affiliated with Iran’s intelligence service. Following a lawsuit, a court in Hamburg ordered Der Spiegel to remove the defamatory segments of its article.
These same agents also met with a New York Times correspondent at the same Café, who subsequently wrote a piece against the MEK, regurgitating the very same allegations.
The mullahs’ influence operations are a serious obstacle to formulating an effective US policy toward Tehran. As long as the regime’s agents are allowed to exploit America’s public sphere, cultivate important relationships, infiltrate the media and think tanks, and influence serious policy deliberations in Washington through a flood of falsehoods, America will be at a substantial disadvantage.
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