The first time Jonathan Spyer went to Lebanon was in the summer of 2006 war when he drove a tank in Israel’s war with Hezbollah. He and I met in Jerusalem in July shortly before he was called up for reserve duty. The riveting and tragic story of his unit’s travails in a war that neither Israel’s military nor civilian leadership had prepared for is the centerpiece of his new book, The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict. Combining reporting with analysis, as well as deeply moving personal accounts, Spyer has written a brilliant book that documents Israel’s last two decades since the beginnings of the Oslo process, a period of self-inflicted Israeli delusion that Spyer wishes he had been wrong about. Instead, he saw it as a disaster from the outset. What looked to some like an Arab world ready for peace was actually a system that was undergoing a profound transformation. Part of that was the ideological shift underway in the Arab world, from Arab nationalist to Islamist, but there was another dynamic as well, driven by a non-Arab actor, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“You have state power from above,” says Spyer, “that is, the power of the Iranian regime, combined with these popular movements from below. Iran’s is not an impressive regime—it is backward and corrupt, but has found a way to translate its ideological zeal and willingness to use violence into a successful practice in politics in a number of places. Hezbollah is the poster boy, but they’ve done it with the Palestinian movement as well. It’s remarkable what they’ve done by cutting the Palestinian national movement into two and turned the Islamist half into a client of theirs. They’ve done it in Iraq as well, even with U.S. troops on the ground.”
The same currency that enables the Iranians to practice subversion abroad is what allows them to stay in power at home, says Spyer—violence. “They wouldn’t like to hear it, but in this way they resemble an Arab regime. The Islamic Republic was always proud that it was not like an Arab state, that it had genuine sources of legitimacy, but after last July’s elections, the Iranian regime has shown its colors.”
As Spyer writes in his book, his interest in on of Iran’s assets, Hezbollah, brought him back to Lebanon after the war. Traveling under a second passport, he spent time in Beirut and enjoyed the city’s famous nightlife, and traveled to Hezbollah strongholds in the south of Lebanon, where he revisited the recent war he’d fought in from the other side. “I wanted to see how Hezbollah operated in the south close up,” he says. “But I was also interested in the other side, people who had a different worldview than Hezbollah’s.”
The future of Lebanon’s pro-democracy forces, March 14, Spyer believes, is bleak. Even if Hassan Nasrallah doesn’t make good on his threats to set fire to Lebanon if Hezbollah members are indicted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), the country is in for hard times, and more war, most likely with Israel. “My view is that Hezbollah and Iran already have the level of control they seek,” says Spyer. “They can do what they want without worrying about administering things. I don’t think the STL will lead to them saying now we must seize the instruments of the state. But it does mean that March 14 will continue in its current downward spiral and become more and more invisible. If Lebanon is turned into an armed camp primed for war with Israel, then there will be war with Israel, though not necessarily right away. In the Middle East, if it looks like war might happen, then it usually does.”