The Cable

Why Hezbollah Loves the U.S.-Iran Nuke Deal

BEIRUT -- American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia haven't been shy about criticizing the proposed deal over Iran's nuclear program. But one surprising party has come out in favor of a diplomatic solution: America's foe, the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah.

"If an understanding is reached between Iran and the West over the nuclear program, our side will be stronger locally, regionally, and internationally," said Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in a speech in Beirut's southern suburbs last week on the occasion of Ashura, one of the most important holidays of the year for Shiites.  "If things go for war, the other camp should be worried."

There is limited but mounting evidence that a U.S.-Iranian agreement over Tehran's nuclear program could help improve the two countries' collaboration on other issues. Washington and Tehran, for example, will likely both participate in a U.N.-sponsored effort to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria. But if Hezbollah's vocal support for a deal is any indication, one issue that will remain unresolved is the role of the militant group, which U.S. officials have condemned in years past as "the A Team of terrorists" - and more recently castigated for lending military support to President Bashar al-Assad's regime. In other words, the "Party of God" isn't afraid that a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would harm its close political and military ties to Tehran.

It helps, of course, that the war in nearby Syria is increasingly tilting in the direction of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, a staunch ally of both Hezbollah and Iran. The Syrian military -- aided by fighters from Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias -- has recently seized territory back in the Aleppo and Damascus suburbs, while also launching an offensive in the area of Qalamoun, along the Lebanese border. Syria's prime minister responded to these gains on Nov. 13 by saying that the regime "is marching towards astounding victory."

Qassem Qassir, a journalist for the Lebanese daily as-Safir who follows the party closely, said that the movement sees in these military gains a chance to reconstitute its "Axis of Resistance," an array of actors opposed to U.S. and Saudi influence in the Middle East. This alliance had consisted of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he said -- but had been shattered with the outbreak of unrest in Syria, as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood joined the anti-Assad camp.

Hezbollah sees a chance to rebuild the ties between Hamas and the Assad regime, which were severed after senior Hamas officials left Damascus as the revolt gained pace in early 2012. Iran, which has maintained ties with Hamas even as it disapproved of its stance on Syria, is crucial to that effort - a fact that is unlikely to change with or without a nuclear deal. "[Hezbollah] is confident that they can re-strengthen the Axis of Resistance to the way it was before the Syrian revolt," Qassir said.

Other observers see Hezbollah's public support for a deal in Geneva as an extension of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's orders to Iran's internal factions that they say nothing that could undermine the talks. Iranian diplomats "have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work," Khamenei said earlier this month. The negotiators, he added, "are children of the revolution."

With such explicit support from Khamenei, Iran's top official and Hezbollah's most important patron, the Lebanese movement has ample reason to throw its weight behind the talks. "[Hezbollah's] views shouldn't be surprising, because it's reflecting current Iranian views," Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to both Israel and Jordan, told Foreign Policy.

Whatever Nasrallah's reasons for supporting the talks, however, the Hezbollah chief did not neglect to use the moment to contrast what he described as America's wavering support for its allies to the firm support of Hezbollah's patrons. "We have two allies - Iran and Syria," he said. "We are sure of that alliance." 

 

-/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Graham’s Blockade of Obama’s Picks Is Crumbling

Senator Lindsey Graham's vow to bring the Obama administration to a screeching halt over the attacks in Benghazi is turning out to be just a light tap on the brakes.

Last week, the South Carolina Republican renewed his pledge to place a hold on President Obama's appointments with the exception of two State Department employees. He maintained that he wanted to interview more Benghazi witnesses to ask them about what they saw the night of the attack and would continue to place holds on nominees. However, he appears to have quietly released holds on four more Obama nominees, a fact that bodes well for the most anticipated nomination in Washington -- that of Federal Reserve chair nominee Janet Yellen.

The list of newly-confirmed officials includes James Walter Brewster as ambassador to the Dominican Republic, the sixth openly gay ambassador nominated by Obama; Michael Lumpkin, an Assistant Secretary of Defense; Philip Goldberg, ambassador to the Philippines; and Kenneth Mossman, a member of the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board. The State Department officials he released last week were Anne Patterson, for Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, and Gregory Starr, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security.

When asked if Graham has lifted his hold on any other Obama picks, the senator's spokespersons did not respond. But the news follows a week of Senate panel testimonies by Yellen and Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security nominee. Graham's hold on Yellen looms large because lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have said that barring his hold, they expect her to be confirmed. (The Senate Banking Committee will vote on Yellen's nomination on Thursday, which, if approved, will send her nomination to the Senate floor.) Meanwhile, Johnson's confirmation is also on track in the absence of a hold, with reporters describing his confirmation as "largely friendly."

Graham's vow to hold the nominations coincided with his viewing of a 60 Minutes report that has now been retracted because its central source lied about his experience the night of the attack on multiple occasions. Last Sunday, CNN's Candy Crowley asked if the hold still held. "The 60 Minutes story was not true," said Crowley.

"Right," said Graham.

"Will you now end your threat to place a hold on the president's nominees?" asked Crowley

"No," said Graham. He emphasized the importance of getting to the bottom of when the incident became known as a terrorist attack as opposed to a protest among other questions and how come security failures weren't known earlier on.

The State Department and White House referred questions about further Graham holds to the senator's office.

Democratic frustration over GOP holds peaked last week when Senate Republicans blocked a third nominee to a federal appeals court, which prompted threats by Democrats for a rules change to end the maneuver.

It remains unclear if Graham's apparent relaxation of holds is another one-time gesture or the beginning of a longer release. Graham is facing intense  pressure from his right-ward flank in South Carolina and is set to endure four primary challengers next year who all accuse him of the same thing: Being insufficiently conservative. Graham, a veteran lawmaker who has been in Congress since 1995, is coming under fire in particular for previous efforts to work with Democrats. "When a senator consistently gets pulled across the aisle and votes for legislation his Republican colleagues don't vote for, you begin to question his judgment," a challenger Richard Cash told ABC News last week. "People don't trust him anymore."

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