15 February 2004

Twice in a short speech welcoming prisoners returning from Israel in a German brokered arrangement, Hezbollah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah berated U.N. Secretary General's credibility. "We entrusted the matter to Kofi Annan with no results," he first told assembled government officials and representatives of all Lebanese and Arab parties. Widely covered by the whole Arab media, he repeated a few minutes later: "We waited for Annan, although we knew it will be futile."

It was not that Annan had refused to meet Hezbollah on principle. In fact, he had met Sheikh Nasrallah during an official visit to Lebanon three years ago to offer a role. The follow up was almost comic, if not tragic. A "special envoy" designated to discreetly handle the question was undercut by a Special Representative for South Lebanon who indicated that he was aware of what's going on and ready for action if the envoy was unsatisfactory (they are both ostensibly from the same country). Then came the Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process and Special Representative to the Palestinian Authority. He also poked in until stiffly rebuffed and publicly denounced.

Terje Larsen and Steffan Demistura had been appointed personally by Kofi Annan for reasons other than their standing in that region. When Demistura insisted on seeing Sheikh Nasrallah, he took with him two "aides" who were kept outside despite his protestation. He was further disappointed when no photographers were allowed. He tried to use the potential links of young Imran, son of Chef de Cabinet Iqbal Riza who is highly valued in Teheran. But the wily Riza knows better than to meddle in a muddle. Larsen arrived a few months ago, possibly smelling a done deal, mainly to ask around. Misinformed, he counted on the influence of the same officer who had been kept out during Demistura's meeting. Also overestimating his stature, he offered his good offices not only in Lebanon but in Damascus where he tried to drag in Syrian President Bashar Assad. A "briefing" he gave to some Israeli journalist about his value in that issue brought back a clear response. A story placed in the influential "Al-Safir" threw the kitchen sink at Larsen, accusing him of self-promotion, lying and, briefly, meddling in what was none of his business.

Clearly, the German mediators succeeded where Annan's team failed. They gained the confidence of the Israeli government and Hezbollah leadership, both of whom handled the matter with correct professionalism and grudging mutual respect, despite obvious enmity and political rhetoric. As the Lebanese President, Prime Minister, Parliament Speaker and dignitaries were at the airport awaiting the arrival of the German plane, U.N. photo opportunist Demistura was spotted parading aimlessly looking for a place in the receiving line, visibly disappointed by a total lack of attention.

The impact on Annan's credibility raised by Sheikh Nasrallah is not only related to Lebanon but to a future role in Iraq. The Shiite clergy in Iraq have at least strong spiritual links with the Shiites in Lebanon. Although each maintain their own concerns. They are inspired by shared experiences. Could the public statement in Beirut be a message to Baghdad?