IRAN'S banks, operating through front men and companies, are financing land purchases that could redraw Lebanon's complex ethnic and religious map.
Soon after last year's Israel-Hezbollah war, the Islamic republic set up a "Lebanon Committee" ostensibly to rebuild Shiite areas damaged in the fighting. It started with a $250 million "Islamic gift" distributed by Hezbollah among supporters.
Soon, however, it became clear that those who received the cash didn't use it to rebuild their homes in Shiite villages south of the Litani River. When I visited the former war zone last spring, I was surprised to see little reconstruction work in the Shiite villages near the Israeli border.
Is Tehran developing a new strategy, in which Lebanon south of the Litani would serve as a buffer zone in a future war against Israel? Until last year's war, the area was Hezbollah's stronghold, and host to more than 90 percent of its arsenal, including thousands of rockets and missiles.
Now, however, Hezbollah, though still present, is not allowed to bear arms south of the Litani. More important, from Tehran's point of view, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is no longer able to maintain a presence there. Today, some 12,000 U.N. troops, plus almost as many men from the Lebanese army, control the area.
Against that background, Tehran's new strategy makes sense. It pursues three goals:
* First, it aims at creating a string of bases north of the Litani from which rocket and missiles could be launched against Israel. It would also enable the Revolutionary Guard and its Hezbollah allies to cut the route through which the central government in Beirut and/or the United Nations might send reinforcements to the south.
* Second, acquiring land and building new villages in non-Shiite areas north of the Litani would provide territorial contiguity for the portion of the Shiite community loyal to Hezbollah and thus to the Islamic Republic. Tehran would be able to ferry aid and arms to its Lebanese allies through the Syrian border without having to pass through areas controlled by other Lebanese sects. The state-owned Iranian Telecommunication Corp. is already building fiber-optic lines for Internet, TV and phone networks out of any possible control by the Lebanese government.
* Finally, the new strategy could cut off part of the warlike Druze minority, some 5 percent of Lebanon's population and the most dedicated supporters of democratization, from its traditional stronghold in Wadi al-Taym. The Christian community could also be divided, with its Greek Orthodox stronghold, Marj Ayoun, cut off from Maronite and Orthodox villages in southern Bekaa Valley.
Most of the land bought with Iranian money in recent months has been sold by Christian and Druze families, often at prices too attractive to refuse.
In the Druze village of Sraireh, 50 percent of the lands have been bought by a single Hezbollah front man. Another village that has already passed into Shiite hands is Chbail, once owned by the Abu-Chaqraa Druze clan, with a 50 percent Christian population. The land purchase scheme is also hot in other villages in Jabal Reyhan, a former feudal fiefdom of the Druze Jumblatt clan, and the Western Bekaa on the Syrian border and in neighboring mixed areas.
The new Iranian land grab in Lebanon could also isolate the Sunni Muslim population in the disputed Shibaa Farms area, still under Israeli occupation.
Backing the land-purchase scheme are several Iranian banks already on a U.N. blacklist for their alleged funding of terrorism. These include Guard-controlled Bank Sepah and the state-owned Bank Tejarat (Commerce).
The building projects are run by the Iranian Jihad Sazendegi (Construction Struggle) through 33 Iranian contractor firms often owned by powerful figures within the Islamic leadership. When necessary, a number of prominent Lebanese Shiites function as front men. One such is Haj Ali Tajeddin, an investor with extensive business connections with Iranian leaders.
If the scheme is fully implemented, Lebanon's Shiites could end up as the only one of the country's 18 communities to have a contiguous area of their own from the Syrian border to the frontier with Israel. That would give Hezbollah, already a state within the Lebanese state, a territorial expression as well.
The scenario resembles that played out by the Palestinian Hamas which, having acted as a state within the state, finally decided that it needed a clear territorial expression and moved to seize Gaza. A chunk of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah plus Gaza could form the two arms of a pincer that the Islamic Republic could use against Israel in case of a broader conflict in the region.
Iran's "buy Lebanon" drive affects other sectors of the economy. Pro-Ira nian groups already own five of the eight TV stations and two of the four top-selling newspapers in Lebanon.
Add to this Hezbollah's rebuilt military machine, including more than 2,000 new fighters, and the "state within the state" may begin to look like a full-fledged state controlled by Tehran.
Tehran's new strategy is strengthened by the fact that Shiites represent the fastest growing community in Lebanon. Most estimates indicate that Shiites, already the largest community in Lebanon with at least 35 percent of the population, may well become a majority within the next decade.
Encouraged by special funds set up by Tehran, Shiite families produce more children than other Lebanese communities. At the same time, Shiites represent the only community that is gaining in numbers because of expatriates returning home, often from West Africa. Lebanon's other big communities, Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims, are losing numbers due to smaller families and rising immigration.
While giving the impression that a war against America may be imminent, Tehran appears to have assumed that the Bush administration, sailing into the sunset, is in no position to take action. Tehran strategists believe this gives them time to fortify Iran's positions in Gaza and Lebanon as bridgeheads against Israel. The assumption is that, faced with the possibility of massive losses of life in Israel, no future U.S. president would think of attacking the Islamic Republic.
Having invested some $20 billion in Lebanon since the '80s, Tehran ap pears to have opted for a long-term strategy there. This may help calm things down, especially as Lebanon moves toward a potentially explosive presidential election this month.
But would Syria, Iran's indispensable ally in the region, also take an interest in calming things down in Lebanon? Traditionally, Syria has pursued a policy aimed at presenting itself as the only power capable of imposing stability on a chaotic and unruly Lebanon.
If Tehran decides to practically buy Lebanon rather than grab it by the force of arms, Syria might find itself marginalized. That, in turn, might persuade the Syrians to reassess their increased dependence on Tehran. But that's another story.