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Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah reacted angrily yesterday to an Egyptian court verdict which sentenced members of a terror cell organized by the movement in Egypt to prison terms.
The verdict, delivered on Wednesday, resulted in the sentencing of the 26 members of the cell to jail terms varying between six months and 15 years.
The conviction of the Hizbullah-organized cell in Egypt is the latest episode in the ongoing rivalry between Egypt and Iran, in which Hizbullah plays the role of a proxy force on behalf of its patrons in Teheran.
Egyptian-Iranian tension, in turn, is a reflection of the larger Iranian project for regional domination.
In a statement to the Kuwaiti al-Rai newspaper which was also carried on Hizbullah’s official Web site, Nasrallah said that the verdicts "against the mujahidiin who were offering aid to the mujahidiin in the Gaza Strip are political adjudications and are arbitrary decisions in the right of those mujahidiin, those noble men."
The Hizbullah leader vowed to "pursue political and diplomatic means to settle this matter and establish the rights of those brothers and remove them from prison."
Hizbullah’s differences with Egypt came to a head during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead operation in Gaza. The Egyptian decision to keep the Rafah exits from Gaza sealed was a major contributing factor to the relative military success of the operation. Hizbullah was infuriated by the Egyptian stance, and Nasrallah called for a military mutiny in Egypt, and the overthrow of the regime.
The Egyptian media responded in kind, referring to Nasrallah as the "monkey sheikh" and a "son of garbage." Such enervating rhetoric reflects the differing views of Egypt and Hizbullah/Iran regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But the recently convicted cell, led by Hizbullah operative Muhammad al-Mansour, was not convicted only for seeking to organize operations in aid of the Palestinians. Rather, according to presiding judge Judge Adel Abdul Salam Gomaa, it planned to carry out attacks on Egyptian soil, including the targeting of ships on the Suez Canal.
Mansour’s lawyers denied this, saying that their client had proposed operations against Israeli targets in Egypt, but that Nasrallah had rejected it.
Judge Gomaa, however, dismissed their protests, asking whether "targeting ships in the canal" and "targeting tourist resorts" could be considered action on behalf of the Palestinians. In other words, the cell led by Mohammed al-Mansour appears to offer proof of planned direct military activity by an Iranian proxy, targeted at a leading Arab country.
The Egyptian regime is evidently trying to avoid playing up this aspect of the trial. Cairo acts in its own interests and its own interests place it firmly on the American and Israeli side of the current regional divide. However, given widespread popular enmity for Israel and the west in Egypt, the government prefers to avoid excessively demonstrating this reality in public.
Some reports of the trial suggested that the relative leniency of the sentences handed down reflected this Egyptian preference.
But whatever the public relations needs of the Egyptian regime, the revelation of the large, Hizbullah-led terror cell led by Mansour offers the latest glimpse into the modus operandi of Iran and its allies.
The targeting of shipping in the Suez Canal has no application in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the canal provides billions of dollars in annual revenue for the Egyptian regime. A strike on a ship passing through the canal would constitute a major blow to Cairo.
Despite Mansour’s identity as a member of Hizbullah, such a goal is of little relevance to the movement. It would, however, be an obvious interest for Iran, which seeks to subvert and undermine regional rivals, and to acquire threats and leverage against them.
A capacity to strike at the Suez Canal would also represent an asset for the Iranians in the event that they wished to respond to any future attack on their nuclear facilities.
According to a report published last year by the respected Intelligence Online Web site, Mohammed Mansour reported to the special operations branch of Hizbullah formerly controlled by Imad Mughniyeh. This element of Hizbullah, in turn, coordinates its activities with Gen. Faisal Bagherzadeh, the senior Iranian Revolutionary Guard officer in Lebanon.
So the activities of of the cell are further proof of the stark divide in the region, and of the extent to which the Iran-led ‘resistance bloc’s ambitions go beyond opposition to the US and Israel only.
The goal of the Iranian regime is to emerge as the hegemonic power in the Middle East. The traditional leading countries of the Arab world are an obstacle in the way of this ambition. Iran and its allies therefore organize to subvert them – albeit, as the trial in Cairo reflects, not always successfully.