What Has Tehran to Gain from Hizballah’s New Face?
For the first time in its 20-year history as a reviled international kidnapper, Hizballah is demanding that its representatives be allowed to hold direct talks with Israel.
The demand interrupted the efforts by a German BND intelligence go-between to negotiate the release of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the Israeli soldiers whose abduction on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border touched of a 33-day war.
If the Olmert government responds positively, it will also be the first time that Israeli military intelligence officers have ever come face to face with Hizballah’s military officials.
The Hizballah demand was specific. They asked to meet with “Ofer Dekel and his people,” thereby identifying the former Shin Bet deputy chief who is in charge of the effort to obtain the release of the two soldiers snatched by Hizballah and Gilead Shalit, who was kidnapped in a Hamas-led incursion from the Gaza Strip a month earlier.
In addition to the German middleman, the Lebanese Shiite terror group has also asked Qatar to open up a direct link with Israel for talks on the two hostages.
One conjecture by Israeli intelligence officials is that Hizballah has been told to offer to trade information about Goldwasser and Regev for word about Iranian ex-general Ali Reza Asgari, said to have disappeared in Istanbul on Feb. 7.
Before deciding on a response to Hizballah’s surprise approach, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert has asked for intelligence evaluations on what is behind it.
One theory speaks of a fresh Hizballah trap.
But, more seriously, the case of the missing Asgari, who according to some reports is in the process of debriefing by Western intelligence somewhere in Europe, has completely stumped Tehran. The Iranian government is at sea over how, when and why the former deputy defense minister disappeared, and who is holding him now. They refuse to believe that he spied for the West for many years or that he defected voluntarily.
To support this conviction, Tehran put Ziba Ahmadi, Asgari’s wife, their three children and his brother, on television to deny his defection. Their appearance was meant to belie the reports that he had asked for asylum in the West for himself and family.
But there were two slips in the TV interview.
Mrs. Asgari said he had been missing since Dec. 9, 2006, whereas he was generally reported to have disappeared in Istanbul on Feb. 7.
His brother Davoud admitted that Asgari had two wives.
This hypothesis postulates that, after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad appealed to the Saudis for help in tracing the missing general and was turned down, Tehran sent Hizballah to dig information from Israel. It was understood that the Olmert government would not to agree to sensitive negotiations of this kind going forward through a third party. The German middleman was therefore dispensed with and a direct encounter demanded.
A third hypothesis current in Israeli intelligence is that Hizballah’s initiative is part and parcel of the newly-launched US-Iran diplomatic track on Tehran’s nuclear misdoings and its disruptive role in Iraq. The first steps went forward discreetly through Saudi Arabia. Since the Baghdad neighbors’ meeting for stabilizing Iraq Saturday, March 10, the exchanges are out in the open. A follow-up between foreign ministers is expected to take place in Istanbul in April.
The first positive action by Tehran has been to call its proxies off from hounding the pro-Western Fouad Siniora government of Lebanon; Hizballah has been told to end its boycott of the government in return for additional cabinet seats. Therefore, Iran emerges with its Lebanese cat’s paw’s position in Beirut enhanced, well before diplomacy for an accommodation on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and the stabilization of Iraq has gone anywhere.
To solidify its position, Hizballah must behave like a respectable political party rather than terrorists who conduct terrorist and kidnapping raids against the neighbors. The comprehensive face-lift Hizballah is aiming for, according to this third theory, is to be accomplished through a new mode of behavior, which would relegate the Goldwasser and Regev abduction affair as far as possible to its murky past.