Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei knew what he was talking about when on Monday, December 20, he fiercely attacked the STL, the UN international tribunal investigating the 2005 Hariri assassination: "This tribunal is receiving orders from elsewhere and whatever ruling it hands down is null and void," Khamenei said to visiting Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Iranian state television reported. "We hope that the influential sides which have a say in Lebanon act according to logic and wisdom, so that this issue does not become a problem," he said.
By "orders from elsewhere" Khamenei was shooting a broadside at Washington, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources report, after he came across a disclosure that made him really angry while perusing Iranian intelligence files on Lebanon.
He read that President Barack Obama was determined to keep Hizballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah on the hook – even after the latter began leaning toward acceptance of the STL's right to summon and indict his top security officials and was showing willingness to work things out with the Lebanese government.
(See DEBKA-Net-Weekly 473 of Dec. 10: Abandoned by Syria, HIzballah Bows to Hariri Tribunal.)
Khamenei discovered from the file that Jeffrey Feltman, US Assistant Secretary of the State for Near Eastern Affairs, had been told to find a way to enable the STL to try Hizballah suspects in absentia, in case Nasrallah changed his mind and went back to boycotting the tribunal.
This innovation would make history for the international justice system because there is no precedent for defendants accused of assassination and terror being tried in their absence. It would provide a useful precedent, the White House believes, for bringing to justice elusive terrorists with known identities like Al Qaeda's Osama bin Laden. The court would be able to issue international warrants to force Muslim governments like Pakistan and Iran to give up wanted radical Islamists terrorists and stop hiding behind ignorance of their whereabouts, such as Taliban's Mullah Omar and Saeed Hafiz Muhammad, leader of the Lashkar-e-Taibe, Al Qaeda's special Pakistani operational arm which was responsible for the devastating attack on Mumbai two years ago. They could then be tried and convicted in absentia and hunted under international warrants.
The UN Lebanon Tribune is a slow worker
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources disclose that the administration decided to move after learning that the Tribunal's Chief Prosecutor Daniel Bellemare had gathered solid proof of the guilt of at least six Hizballah security and intelligence chiefs – over and above the records of incriminating cell phone conversations. He had also reached witnesses and laid hands on key documents which he is keeping close to his chest.
But the wheels of justice in The Hague are turning slowly.
US officials expect Bellemare will take advantage of the news slowdown over Christmas and New Year holidays to quietly submit the dossier with his findings and recommendations to STL Pre-Trial Judge Daniel Fransen between December 24 and January 1.
Submitting it to the judge does not automatically make the materials public. The STL is free to issue a dry statement saying the investigation is complete and has reached conclusions without revealing anything further. It will then be up to Judge Fransen to decide on the admissibility of indictments and issue any warrants he sees fit for the arrest of accused suspects.
Informed circles in Washington expect the judge to take his time and withhold until the end of March or early April 2011 word of his decision on whether there is enough evidence for demanding the extradition of Lebanese Hizballah high-ups for trial.
The supreme leader Khamenei's words to the Qatari Emir were meant as a warning to the Obama administration not to force the pace or go through with amending the tribunal's mandate – else Iran would also step in.
Hariri's followers go to ground to escape Hizballah's ire
Beirut too is simmering with unrest and awash with rumors that Bellemare is on the point of submitting his findings to the STL judge by week's end. Many of Prime Minister Saad Hariri's closest allies are taking no chances and preparing for violent repercussions against them from Hizballah. Some took advantage of the holiday season to send their families to the US and Europe "on vacation," leaving their return dates open until the security situation resolves itself. Others moved out of the Lebanese capital to places where their faces were unknown. And some surrounded themselves, homes and offices with armed guards.
Israel, too, geared up for Hizballah to lash out in its direction.
On Thursday, December 16, the IDF completed one of the most extensive drills it has held in recent years. Two combat units, the Nahal Infantry Brigade and the 401st Armored Brigade practiced tactics on the Golan near the Lebanese border for dealing with antitank missiles, rockets and mortar shells – as well as Hizballah gunmen astride motorbikes. Each of the two brigades was assigned its duties in the event of a third armed confrontation with Hizballah.