Endemic Middle East turbulence is being further roiled by an entirely unforeseen element:
The Special United Nations Tribunal (STL) for indicting those responsible for assassinating former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 is pointing the finger of suspicion not only at nine high-ranking Hizballah officials but also their overlords, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources.
No one took Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah seriously when on Aug. 9 he tried to shunt culpability for the crime from his organization to Israeli intelligence and demanded an investigation of his charge. This was after a violent cross-border clash between Lebanese and Israeli soldiers.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 456 of Aug. 6: Hizballah's Nasrallah Lights a Fire: A Cell Phone, an Oak Tree or a Grad Missile Could Kindle a Middle East Blaze)
But it turns out that he did in fact light a fire. The tribunal sent back the "evidence" he forwarded against Israel as "incomplete." But meanwhile, the tender care Tehran has lavished for many years on Hizballah, its Lebanese protégé, which is handled in person by supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has boomeranged.
The fur is expected to fly in earnest in December, when the court names the parties guilty of orchestrating and perpetrating the Hariri murder, basing its ruling on the findings of its chief prosecutor, Daniel A. Bellemare.
Assad told to get the STL off Tehran's back
Unnamed sources were this week quoted both by the Western officials close to the STL and Middle East informants as referring to rising tensions in Tehran over fears that Iranian names could come up as complicit in the Hariri murder.
Those sources "did not rule out [the possibility of] indictments touching Mohammad Reza Zahedi, better known as Hasan Mahdavi, commander of the al Qods Brigades force in Lebanon, or even go all the way to the top and reach the Brigades Supreme Commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Al Qods is in charge of the Revolutionary Guards' (IRGC) external operations.
The same sources find the direction of the probe quite logical since every rookie intelligence agent in Lebanon or indeed the Middle East knows that no Hizballah leader or security chief would execute a high-powered operation like the murder of a former Lebanese prime minister without the approval of – or instructions from – its IRGC superiors.
Although Israel might have been expected to be the source of this aspersion, our intelligence sources report that it actually originated in Damascus.
They believe this may have been one of the factors galvanizing Tehran into sending the IRGC's supreme commander, Gen. Mohammed Ali Jafari for his multitasking trip to the Syrian capital. Among his other missions, such as overseeing war preparations against Israel, Jafari was instructed to discuss with Syrian President Bashar Assad ways and means of getting the STL bugbear off IRGC and Hizballah's backs.
Hizballah's al Qods chief candidate for indictment
With him were Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, commander of Iran's terrorist and spy networks in Iraq, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and Hassan Mahdavi, formally designated IRGC envoy to the Lebanese Hizballah, who was recently elevated to overall command of the Lebanese terrorist organization and is now a top candidate for indictment by the Lebanese tribunal.
In July 2009, Al Muhandis was targeted for personal sanctions by the US Treasury as "adviser to Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's Qod's Force, the arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps responsible for providing material support to Lebanon-based Hizballah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report that Jafari entrusted Assad with using his confidential contacts with Washington to warn that a single move by the tribunal affecting an Iranian official would touch off a conflagration in Lebanon and Iraq that would be hard to extinguish.
This wasn't the first prediction heard by the Obama administration of late about the dangerous fallout expected from the STL's work.
Abdullah withdraws Saudi funds from the Hariri Tribunal
A separate article in this issue disclosed the angry phone conversation which took place President Barack Obama and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in the last ten days and ended in a falling-out.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources add that a large portion of the conversation was taken up by a blunt royal request of the president to intervene personally and stall the tribunal's proceedings indefinitely, because Iran and Hizballah are threatening to start a major outbreak of violence – not only in Lebanon and Iraq, but across the Middle East.
Obama turned the king down on this and other issues.
He said that it would be entirely inappropriate for any outsider to interfere in the work of an international court and quite impossible to stop its proceedings.
The president was aware before that stormy conversation took place that Abdullah had already stopped the annual Saudi allocation of $50 million toward the operating costs of the tribunal and the Bellemare team of investigators.
That allocation was made available because Rafiq Hariri had been a close associate of the Saudi royal court and Riyadh was at first determined to find his assassins and bring them to book.
Tuesday night, August 24, Beirut was rattled by exchanges of machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades between Lebanese Shiite and pro-Syrian Sunni factions. Four people were killed, among them a senior Hizballah commander, and three more injured in the shootout.
Hizballah and Tehran in muscle-flexing exercises in Lebanon and Iraq
It was generally understood in the Lebanese capital, although no one admitted as much, that the incident was Hizballah's first test of President Assad's position on the Hariri tribunal and its activities.
The Shiite terrorists were bent on finding out whether he stood behind Tehran and Hizballah against the tribunal or intended exploiting the mess to buy his way into the good graces of Washington and Riyadh.
The next day, Wednesday Aug. 25, car bombers and gunmen launched attacks in a dozen cities the length and breadth of Iraq, killing scores and injuring hundreds of people, blowing up police stations and security posts and using roadside mines to sow mayhem among the military and police responders.
The hellish two-hour assault from Basra in the south to Mosul in the north was as symbolic as it was deadly, occurring a week before the end of the US combat mission in Iraq.
The onslaught was seen as a bid by insurgent forces to prove they were capable of coordinated attacks anywhere in Iran. But it was soon clear to watchers in Iraq and the Middle East that a coordinated assault on this scale must have needed the guiding hands of Iran's al Qods Brigades, because the insurgents lack this broad-scaled capability on their own.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence and counterterrorism sources report that the Americans have fixed their suspicions on the mastermind of the wholesale carnage as being Former General Mohammad Ahmed Yunas, an Iraqi Ba'athist who has been living in and operating out of Damascus since the US toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003.
Yunas's checkered career covers services to Iranian intelligence, collaboration with Syrian intelligence and colluding with Al Qaeda.