Iran and Syria Helping Hizballah Rearm

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Iranian demonstrators in Tehran hold up posters of Lebanese Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah during a protest in July.

Iran is smuggling weapons through Syria to rearm Lebanese allies Hizballah, despite renewed efforts by United Nations peacekeepers and the Lebanese army to seal off the mountain borders with Syria in the wake of last summer's war between the Shi'ite militia and Israel, according to reports by Saudi and Israeli intelligence sources that have been confirmed by Western diplomats in Beirut.

Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv say that Hizballah has replenished nearly half of its pre-war stockpiles of short-range missiles and small arms. But Western diplomats in Beirut say these calculations underestimate the weapons flow and that Hizballah has now filled its war chest with over 20,000 short-range missiles—a similar amount to what they had at the start of the conflict, during which the group is believed to have fired over 3,000 rockets at Israel. "The Iranian pipeline through Syria was already working during the war," despite constant Israeli bombing raids on the roads into Lebanon from Syria, this Beirut source said. Officially, Syria and Iran deny that they're supplying weapons to Hizballah. As for the Shi'ite group itself, when asked about receiving a new shipment of arms from Syria and Iran, a spokesman told TIME, without elaborating, "We have more than enough weapons if Israel tries to attack us again."

Over the past three months, according to a knowledgeable Saudi source, Iranian Revolutionary Guard officers have been operating out of a military base on the outskirts of Damascus. The Iranian government has dispatched shipments of small arms and what appear to be missile components to this military base, according to the source. From the secret base, weapons have been shipped by truck across the border into Lebanon. Western diplomats say that the Lebanese army has posted over 8,000 troops along the border, forcing smugglers to use mountain passes instead of the heavily monitored crossing on the main Beirut-Damascus road.

The Saudis, in particular, are alarmed at Iran's spreading influence in Lebanon. "There has been a serious increase in [Iranian and Syrian] activity in the rearming of HIzballah," says Nawaf Obaid, a Saudi security advisor who is managing director of the Riyadh-based Saudi National Security Assessment Project, a consulting group that advises the Saudi government. Obaid contends that "a huge stream of trucks" has been crossing the border from Syria into Lebanon, ferrying thinly disguised shipments of arms.

Moreover, Obaid says, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) are using the Iranian embassies in Damascus and Beirut as command and control centers, an allegation that was also confirmed to TIME by Israeli military sources. Obaid says there appear to be direct communications links between the Iranians and Hizballah, via Hizballah officers working inside the Iranian embassy in Beirut, and Iranian officers in the field with Hizballah fighters; in the past, some Middle East analysts have rejected the popular notion that Hizballah takes direct orders from Iran.

Iran's apparent efforts to destabilize Lebanon and to expand Shi'ite influence in Iraq and throughout the region are of major concern to the Saudi government, a leading power in the Sunni Muslim world that presumably would like to see the U.S. take a more active stance in Lebanon against its regional rivals. Obaid says that when Vice President Cheney visits King Abdallah bin Abd Al Aziz Al Saud Saturday in Riyadh, the Saudi king is expected to tell Cheney that "the Saudi leadership will not and cannot allow Iran, through Syria and Hizballah, to bring down the Lebanese government and overtake the levers of power in Beirut." Obaid says the Saudi king is also expected to discuss with Cheney the kingdom's worries about Iranian activity in Iraq and the Palestinian territories as well as its alliance with Syria.

All of the Iranian and Syrian activity is taking place against the backdrop of growing instability within Lebanon's government and Saturday's upcoming vote among government ministers to bring the assassins of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri before an international tribunal — a process that is expected to implicate high-level Syrian officials. Hizballah pulled out of the country's coalition government recently after its push for greater representation was rebuffed; many observers viewed the push for effectve veto power as motivated by its concern that prime minister Fouad Siniora would try to begin the process of Hizballah's disarmament that was reaffirmed in the U.N.-brokered cease-fire that ended this summer's war. Moreover, some politicians in Beirut suspect that the assassination of Industry Minister Pierre Gemayel on Tuesday was plotted by Syria to scare cabinet ministers into voting against the international probe into Hariri's death by a massive truck bomb (other analysts argue the predictable fallout from the killing just ahead of such a crucial vote is precisely why Syria would not have ordered it). Saad Hariri, the prime minister's son and a supporter of the current government, told TIME, "Syria is waging a campaign of intimidation and assassinations to stop the tribunal."

If the Lebanese government approves of the tribunal, it will then go to the United Nations, which could slap an embargo on Syria. This process will drag on for months before it wends its way into the U.N. Security Council. Moreover, such a confrontational approach would run counter to the expected recommendation of the Iraq Study Group, commissioned by the White House, to engage with Syria. But after the assassination of Pierre Gemayel the notion of U.S. talks with Syria may be off the table, at least for the moment.

—with additional reporting by Aaron J. Klein/Tel Aviv and Timothy J. Burger/Washington