Carter Meets the Ayatollah the CIA Once Tried to Kill

By Franklin Lamb – Dahiyeh, Beirut

"I will try to get you off the US Terrorism list if you can arrange a meeting for me with Hassan Nasrallah." – Jimmy Carter reportedly joking to Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah at their 6/9/09 meeting.

Some readers may recall a December 15, 2008 Report in Counterpunch entitled "Why Hezbollah Stiffed Carter." The former American President was in Beirut at the time to announce the Center’s Election Monitoring project and was disappointed when Hezbollah’s Mohammad Raad told the media that the National Lebanese Resistance would not be meeting with him. Carter wrote in his December 19, 2008 Report to the Carter Center: "This (recent trip to Lebanon-ed.) was something like a presidential visit in that we had long conversations with top officials, cabinet members and delegations of the many political parties. Hezbollah refrained from meeting with us but expressed approval of our election monitoring".

This observer was advised as Carter departed Lebanon last time, that “the Carter-Hezbollah problem” was not really serious, but rather that the very short notice did not allow for the necessary logistics and details to be worked out to Hezbollah’s standards. Dahiyeh was not off limits to the former US President and indeed Carter has plenty of Hezbollah admirers, despite the 1979 Camp David Accords, based partly on his human rights work his candid admissions of earlier US errors in Lebanon, the region, and even Iran.

It was also learned that Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah would have welcomed a December 2008 visit with Carter but he was in Mecca performing the Hajj. Fadlallah, who prefers the title ‘Sayeed”, meaning  a descendent of the Prophet Mohammad, is not a member of Hezbollah, although the US government and the Israel lobby  from time to time says that he is and claims he is the Spiritual leader of Hezbollah. This is inaccurate as that position is held by Iran’s Supreme Spiritual Guide, Ali Khameni, who in some ways is a rival of Fadlallah’s.

Fadlallah’s religious scholar credentials, record of public service and popularity far exceed Khomeini’s, but both Ayatollah’s share mutual support for Lebanon’s National Resistance goals and the full liberation of Palestine. Fadlallah’s  following does include many Hezbollah members but his marjaa status (Shia religious scholar worthy of emulation, roughly similar to Mufti for Muslim Sunnis) is much broader than Lebanon’s Shia community and reaches around the Middle East and includes Sunni Muslims, Christians, non-believers, and others. Sayeed Fadlallah heads up the largest private social service organization in Lebanon, with schools, colleges, hospitals etc. second on to Hezbollah with whom there is sometimes constructive competition.

Who Does Carter Think He Is!

Floating the idea and then helping arrange the Carter visit to the center of Hezbollah’s Dahiyeh, where no foreign police agencies are allowed, was interesting but not simple. Initially, the very idea that Dahiyeh would receive Carter was dismissed out of hand by all but a few including Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah whose career of more than forty years has been all about dialogue.

According to a member of the Carter entourage, when the US Embassy was informed by the Carter Center that President Carter would hold discussions in Dahiyeh, the first reaction was “Oh no he won’t, who the hell does Carter think he is?” (ed: A former President, 2002 Nobel Prize winner for his humanitarian work, now a private citizen who can meet anyone willing to meet with him?)

A Lebanese Human Rights Ambassador who this observer asked to help with arrangements, (friends at Sayeed Fadlallah’s Office of the Religious Authority had been cooperating with the US-Beirut based Sabra Shatila Foundation for months to arrange a Fadlallah-Carter dialogue) reported that one Embassy staffer said:

“Has he (Carter) lost his mind? Does Carter think the Embassy is going to send US Marines into Dahiyeh to protect him? His entourage will pass by the remains of the US Marine Barracks for Christ’s sake!” (ed: the US Marines Barracks were destroyed on Sunday Oct. 23, 1983 killing 220 Marines, 18 Navy personnel and three Army soldiers, after Lebanon witnessed the clear switch in the US “peacekeeper” role from claimed neutrality to open alignment with the Israel backed Amin Gemayal government as US forces bombed Lebanese villages particularly in the Chouf and shared firing coordinates with Israeli forces still in Lebanon).

“Doesn’t he see the symbolism here? He is interfering in our conduct of American foreign policy and this could be a disaster. What if some terrorist bombs the motorcade?”

Another problem was how could the US Secret Service advance team literally scope out the meandering route necessary to arrive at the Grand Ayatollah’s residence without being arrested by Hezbollah security? One obtuse idea advanced by this observer and no doubt others, was that the Secret Service could simply talk with Hezbollah security and go over plans which is the normal international procedure for visiting dignitaries. This suggestion was nixed fast from Washington (maybe, but not known for sure, by Jeffrey Feltman who is still smarting from widespread criticism of the campaign blitz he launched on behalf of the US-Team (March 14) after the Friday June 6th midnight campaign cut off went into effect). Sources, including the 6/10/09 New Yorker, reported the well known visceral dislike between Feltman and Carter.

On June 10th at his Hotel, Beirut’s Phoenicia, Carter mocked the three foot long email Feltman sent about Syria, which Carter had not read. The former President spread his arms and exclaimed: “It’s this long!” and continued, “For some ungodly reason, when Hillary decided to send some representative to Syria they picked out Feltman”, he said. In defense of her choice, the Embassy pointed out that Feltman is, after all, her Assistant Secretary of State and heads the Near Eastern Affairs Department and is considered by some to be among the most experienced at Foggy Bottom regarding Lebanon and Syria. Yet one staffer acknowledged Feltman’s unpleasant habit of condescendingly lecturing people, especially the Lebanese and Syrians, many of whom find his style off putting. Others in Washington consider Feltman an Israeli legman and support him for that reason.

Hezbollah Misgivings

As for Hezbollah security, they were not thrilled with the prospect of 8 super sized Embassy vehicles jammed with Secret Service, US Marine sharpshooters, heavy arms and electronic equipment pushing into their space just three blocks from where the US had tried on March 8, 1985 to assassinate Sayeed Fadlallah. That US project organized by Reagan CIA director Bill Casey killed 80 and injured 200, nearly all civilians. Among those murdered was Jihad Mougniyeh, brother of Hezbollah’s military commander, Imad, himself killed February 12, 2008 in Damascus. Moreover, the Carter-Fadlallah meeting was to be held near the center of the neighborhood where more than 250 homes, schools and shops were reduced to rubble by US weapons in July-August 2006 followed by the US adding Jihad al Binna Construction Company and its affiliate Waad, to the Terrorism list as they tried to rebuild. Many in Hezbollah thought the Party did not need this problem but they did not veto the meeting.

The State Department suggested that Ambassador Michele Sisson “try to reason with the Carters” (the former Presidents’ son, James accompanied him) but she was unable to dissuade the former President.

On one subject, the US Embassy, Secret Service, Marines and Hezbollah shared a worry, but neither side directly communicated their concern to the other. Both Washington and Hezbollah feared that Mossad agents, now more than 68 accused just since Carter’s last visit, (three more alleged Israeli spies were charged on Tuesday June 8 according to a judicial officials and another ten on Wednesday June 9 with no doubt more to come) would try to assassinate Carter in order to provoke a US-Hezbollah, or better yet, a US-Iran clash. It is becoming clear that the Obama administration does not trust the Israelis much more than Hezbollah does.

It is for this reason that from the moment Carter’s cavalcade left his hotel until following the Fadlallah meeting and the former President’s departure from Hezbollah neighborhoods, the Party carefully observed and protected Carter’s motorcade, meter by meter, with a few seen and more than 400 unseen Hezbollah security personnel plus electronics. Much as they have discretely protected the US Embassy, and its Ambassador, from Salafist groups and others many more times since the July 2006 war than the Embassy would publicly acknowledge or in some cases may even be aware of.

As Hezbollah security forces opened the gates to the Fadlallah compound, for the arriving US motorcade, for the 5 p.m. meeting on June 9, residents of Dayiyeh were surprised because the Hezbollah area is not accustomed to Lebanese officials coming to their areas and some wondered who was inside the blacked car windows.

Pulling up to the security entrance outside Fadlallah’s offices, all concerned were polite, if a bit tense. A US Secret Service agent got out of the lead car and informed his opposite numbers: “the President will exit the car in five minutes”. This was later explained as the time required for those inside the US convoy to “perform certain electronic security procedures.” In fact the SS was faking this as they later admitted because from the time the |Americans entered Hezbollah areas their communications had been jammed and their motorcade bugged. But no one on either side mentioned or sought advantage from this minor embarrassment.

There was mutual curiosity as the two security forces respectfully eyed each other alongside the row of Embassy cars. The Americans were taciturn as were Hezbollah personnel. One of the Shia interpreters later reported: “One of our guys commented to a colleague: “They sure are dressed well”, referring to the Americans pressed suits and fine ties.”

A lovely veiled Shia young lady translator-in-training named ‘Hiba’, which in Arabic means ‘Gift from God’, (never, one imagines, have parents more aptly chosen a daughter’s name as in this instance) blushed and told a researcher, “that one is so cute!”

Hezbollah security allowed the Americans to keep their weapons, did not search them and ignored the alarms that sounded as the secret service passed through metal detectors. This consideration was a Hezbollah first I was advised and they apparently trusted that there would be no tricks from the American side. Two from Carter’s security detail were invited to attend the private meeting which as a courtesy to the former President, and to encourage frankness, was videotaped but not recorded.

The two men seemed to hit if off immediately and soon joked. Following Carter’s invitation to Sayeed Fadlallah to visit America and the Ayatollah’s response that he was still on the US Terrorism list, Carter seemed surprised, and said with a grim that he would try to get Fadlallah off the US Terrorism list if he could arrange for Carter a meeting with Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hasan Nasrallah (in fact some Carter people did meet recently with Hezbollah’s new Foreign Relations Director, former MP, Ali Ammar).

Former President Carter briefed Fadlallah on the Carter Center’s work monitoring the election.  The former President mentioned it was the 76th election he has monitored and  generally speaking was one of the best when analyzed based on CC criteria as transparent, as well as largely corruption and violence free.

Yet there were several areas that needed improvement as noted in the preliminary Carter Center Report and Recommendations:

"The Carter Center encourages all stakeholders, including the electoral administration, civil society, and religious and political leaders to continue to pursue electoral reform. Needed reforms include:

Increased protection for secrecy of the ballot, for example through the use of official, standardized, pre-printed ballots.

Increased independence of the electoral authority.

Positive measures to increase the representation of women in parliament.

The adoption of changes aimed at making the electoral system more representative.

Implementation of recent legislation regarding lowering the voting age and the facilitation of overseas voting.

Steps to ensure equal participation of disabled persons in the electoral process."

As Saad Hariri becomes Lebanon’s next Prime Minister, Hezbollah appears willing to extend its open hand to help put together the new government. Despite losing the elections due to the non-proportionate electoral system, the Lebanese opposition won the popular vote by a large margin.

Hezbollah seems accepting of the results but still wants to change the system. Lebanon knows that he Hezbollah led opposition garnered roughly 815,000 votes out of approximately 1,149,500 cast (close to 55%) for a victory margin of almost 10 percent of all votes cast. Former Arab League Ambassador to Washington, Lebanese Professor Clovis Maksoud, called it “a free but undemocratic election”. He noted: “What in fact is depressing, if not downright embarrassing and even shameful is that the leadership of the contending groups admits and even prides in having their respective “outside” sponsors. This in turn confirmed that the elections are a contest among international and regional powers. Thus side-stepping marginalizing the immediate needs, rights and responsibilities of the citizens have…Absent in the elections were the competing economic, social and political plans and programs.”

One commentator compared this to the American election in 2000 when candidate Gore bested Bush by 500,000 votes but Bush was declared the winner. But as the United States has roughly 100 times the Lebanese population, were one to apply what happened in the US in 2000, to Lebanon, the Hezbollah led opposition plurality would be the equivalent to winning not by 500,000 votes but by many millions of votes.

Similarly, progressive Arab Nationalist candidates in Lebanon’s June 7, 2009 election gathered a total of 140,258 votes out of the total of 1,149,500 cast. This is equal to 9.38 percent of the votes and had the system been a proportional system this would account for 12 seats in parliament rather than zero seats which is what these candidate received.

The Carter Center, Hezbollah, and others who have studied the Lebanese system realize that changing the election law into a proportional one is the only way forward in Lebanon and should be the priority for the coming 4 years.

For his part, Sayeed Fadlallah commended former President for his humanitarian work and present him with a copy of his recent book (he has written 147 aides told me, most in Arabic), Islam, The Religion of Dialogue.

He told Carter he had read his recent books Palestine: Peace not Apartheid and There Can be Peace in the Middle East. He expressed his appreciation for Carter as an objective researcher not controlled by Israeli political forces. He noted that the Question of Palestine was not about Religion but was a political struggle and that Arab countries have no problems with Jews but rather a problem defending against aggressive Zionism. He said Lebanon and the region awaits Obama’s actions to match his” sweet words”, but that he realized that there are powerful forces operating in America that will make Obama’s work for change in Palestine and the region very difficult.

Other comments between the duo were agreed to be off the record and not made public.

At approximately 6:16 p.m. the Carter motorcade departed Dahiyeh and headed up to Bkirki for a meeting with another religious leader, the 89 year old Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, who also ignored the Friday midnight campaign ban and attacked fellow Christians, led my General Michel Aoun, and Hezbollah hours before the balloting started. But the religious leader, given his advanced age and status as Lebanese Cardinal (the only one Lebanon has ever had) was not as heavily chastised as Feltman for violations of Lebanese Campaign laws) and many people in Dahiyeh, the US Embassy, and the State Department, no doubt, sighed in relief.

– Franklin Lamb is doing research in Lebanon. He contributed this article to Contact him at:

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