ANALYSIS / Assad Goes to Iran to Explain, Not Excuse Israel Talks

Iran receives Lebanese gov't policy protecting Hezbollah's standing; France welcomes end of Lebanon crisis.

The aircraft of Syrian President Bashar Assad is constantly in the air. Two weeks ago it was in Paris. On Saturday, it was in Tehran. Assad presented each of his hosts with the same gift: a breakthrough in Lebanon. To Nicolas Sarkozy, who opened before him an official and respected channel to the West, he came after having achieved a deal on an acceptable Lebanese government, as Michel Suleiman was selected the new Lebanese president in Doha. To Tehran, he arrived with the agreed-upon basic policies of the Lebanese government.

These gifts have many facets, and each host can claim to have received the better present. France is pleased that the Lebanese government was finally formed and that the talks with Israel are progressing; and Iran received a Lebanese government policy that safeguards Hezbollah's standing and, more importantly, its arsenal.

The government policy directives the Lebanese parliament is scheduled to vote on tomorrow state that, "It is Lebanon's right, and that of its people, its army's and its resistance, to complete the liberation of its lands."

This formula puts Hezbollah on an equal footing with the Lebanese Army in matters pertaining to the defense of the state as well as the liberation of the Shaba Farms and the village of Ghajar. This means that, subsequently, any talk of disarming Hezbollah undermines the defense of the state and Lebanon's ambition to liberate its territory.

The coalition majority, led by Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Sa'ad Hariri (who heads the Movement of the Future Party), did demand that any liberation activities be conditioned on government approval. But as a result of Hezbollah's opposition, these amendments were not included. As a result, not only is Hezbollah allowed to retain its arms, it can also define what constitutes liberation and what precisely it means to defend Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has already made it clear that the defensive strategy he has adopted - to justify his organization's continued arms buildup - includes taking action against Israeli overflights of Lebanon. Now that the Lebanese government has decided on the basis of its policies, Nasrallah will ensure that air defense action against Israeli aircraft will be considered acceptable defensive action by the Lebanese government.

That is why Iran can rest assured about Hezbollah. But Assad also came to Tehran to explain his talks with Israel - not to excuse them. This is the most troubling bone of contention between the two allies, and Iran has yet to comment officially on it. Assad does not seem to be put off by unofficial Iranian warnings that peace between Damascus and Jerusalem will irrevocably alter relations between Tehran and Damascus. The Syrian president will explain to his hosts that the alliance with them is strategic and that he does not intend to sever that relationship. Nonetheless, this visit will force Iran to adopt a new public stance and strategy on the peace talks between Syria and Israel.