The heightened paranoia of communism by the American foreign policy makers, and the exploitation of the fear by regional powers, had established the foundations for the intervention of the regional powers in the Lebanese civil war. However, it was the consequences of the inconsistency in American support for conflicting Middle Eastern powers during the Iran Iraq War that ultimately escalated the conflict in Lebanon into a global catastrophe.
The two conflicting perspectives that dominated the political analysis of the conflict in the Middle East in the early 1980s were the global perspective which, reflecting the dominant perspectives of the past three decades, focused on the defense of American interests from the Soviet Union as the highest priority and the new regional perspective adopted by the Reagan administration which concentrated on the Persian Gulf region as the regional priority and as a separate conflict from the crisis between Arab and Israeli states. The anachronistic view that the Soviet Union was still instigating civil wars with the objective of a communist takeover still dominated the foreign policies of the United States. The dramatic events in the Middle East in 1979 through the Islamic revolution of Iran, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, and the escalation of the Lebanese civil war confirmed the American fear that American assets in the Near East were at risk and called for the projection of American power through its client states. Iraq invaded Iran in 1980 with little justification over a territorial dispute; however, because Saddam Hussein was adamantly anti-Iranian and anti-fundamentalist, the United States made no attempts to cease the violence. When the Iraqi offensive failed and the Iranian counter offensive pushed Iraq back to its borders by 1982, the United States steadily increased the arms supply to Iraq. However, during the first year of the Iran Iraq War, the American hostages from the Iran hostage crisis had yet to be freed and thus the United States was still in the process of negotiating their release. The United States gave marginal support to Iraq, but not enough to push the war entirely to Saddam Hussein’s favor. What occurred next was the attempted assassination of the Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov and the consequent invasion of Lebanon by Israel in 1982. The two seemingly inconsequential events are closely connected and decisive in the mass escalation of the Lebanese conflict.
Two different sources tell us two different accounts for this affair. First, in Chaim Herzog’s The Arab-Israeli Conflict, he specified that Shlomo Argov was assassinated by Palestinian terrorists and that as a reprisal and in self-defense, Israel invaded Lebanon where the PLO had taken refuge after being ousted from Jordan. The second account is in The Persian Puzzle by Kenneth M. Pollack where he stated that Saddam Hussein actively planned and coordinated the assassination of Argov with radical elements of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and provoked Israel to invade Lebanon which Saddam Hussein thought would force Ayatollah Khomeini to divert forces from the front lines to aid the Shiite nation. Saddam Hussein’s rationale “had little to do with Israel and everything to do with the war against Iran” (Pollack 199). What is interesting to note is that according to Thomas Friedman in his first hand account From Beirut to Jerusalem, the attempted assassination of Argov was publicly dennounced as an act of terror by the PLO which the PFLP were in opposition. Thus, the primary objective and motive of the Israeli invasion is questionable.
As the Israeli military advanced to the outskirts of Beirut by the summer of 1982, Ayatollah Khomeini did not divert his forces from the front as Saddam expected, instead he sent a small contingent of the revolutionary guards, fiercely loyal to the cause of the Islamic revolution and equally hateful of the western world, to Lebanon. They would influence the creation of the radically fundamentalist and anti-Israeli organization known as Hezbollah. The Reagan administration, fearing Iranian victory in the war, began supplying the Iraqis with increased amounts of weapons and intelligence. Hezbollah responded to the increased aggression towards Iran by kidnapping Americans and holding them hostage in Lebanon. The United States was forced to covertly negotiate with Iran for the release of the hostages through an underground arms deal.
The American inconsistency in the beginning of the Iran Iraq War had far reaching consequences as radical fundamentalist elements became a major actor in the escalating war in Lebanon, complicating the conflicts from a political and nationalist struggle into a religious conflict and further dividing the already fractured nation.