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Talking to Terrorists?

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Britain's decision to talk to Hezbollah is a nuanced move, but any call for disarmament is likely to fall on deaf ears

David Miliband told the Lebanese Daily Star this week that he believed "carefully considered contact with Hezbollah's politicians, including its MPs, will best advance our objective of the group rejecting violence to play a constructive role in Lebanese politics".

Hezbollah heads the opposition group in the newly formed national unity government that took five months of political wrangling to agree upon. Engaging with the Shia organisation could be a pragmatic attempt to consolidate the state over the sub-state.

At first glance, Miliband's motives seem sound - if Hezbollah could be brought further into the mainstream it would reduce the likelihood of renewed conflict with Israel, allow for more pressure to be put on more radical sub-state groups such as the al-Qaida offshoots in the country, and even put some daylight between Hezbollah and its main backer, Iran.

There can be little doubt over the difficulty of this task. After all, Hezbollah was originally an Iranian creation whose avowed intention in its 1985 first manifesto was to create an Islamic republic. Yet over the years it has steadily become more of a nationalist organisation centred around Lebanese politics as reflected in its second manifesto. However, it still relies heavily on Iranian and Syrian financial and military support and no doubt responds to issues of mutual interest. Indeed, Iran recently pledged an increased $20m funding to overseas groups, although AP reported that this included not only traditional allies such as Hezbollah, but also groups that could "investigate American and British human rights abuses".

As the cold war between Iran and the west continues, characterised by the cat and mouse game around Iran's nuclear enrichment programme, rightwing pundits rejoice about seemingly being proved right on the ineffectiveness of reaching out to Iran. At present the engagement track seems shaky. In the same week that President Obama announced that 30,000 more American troops will be deployed to Iran's eastern neighbour, the US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, explained:

As Iran makes choices that seem to indicate that it is not at this stage ready and willing to take up the offers on the engagement track then we will put greater emphasis on the pressure track.

If the pressure track eventually leads to attacks on Iran's nuclear facilities, Hezbollah's weapons suddenly become extremely important in gauging the Iranian counter-strike.

It is in fact an attempt to disarm Hezbollah that actually lies at the heart of Britain's strategy of low-level engagement. This was signalled earlier in the year when the then Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell stated in March that "we have reconsidered the position ... in light of more positive developments in Lebanon". Miliband himself explained at the time how "we can make absolutely clear our determination to see United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the disbanding of militias among other things in Lebanon, taken forward with real speed".

Yet Hezbollah's weapons are considered the ultimate red line. It was attempts at disrupting the organisation's autonomous capabilities by the pro-west March 14 government in 2008 that led to Hezbollah taking over Beirut. The threat is potent, although shrouded in secrecy; it is estimated that Hezbollah has the capability to mobilise more than 40,000 fighters, the 2006 war provided evidence of its adroit use of anti-tank and anti-ship weaponry, drone technology and night-fighting capabilities. Israel remains more concerned over the range of the rockets that have been resupplied to the group, with recent incidents of arms caches exploding and Israeli intelligence infrastructure being uncovered raising tensions over the "blue line".

If Miliband thinks that low-level engagement with Hezbollah on the basis of disarming the group is going to work then he may have been surprised to hear how even the pro-west March 14 alliance had backed off this demand as part of the formation of the cabinet. AFP reported that Lebanese information minister Tarek Mitri had affirmed the right of "Lebanon, its government, its people, its army and its resistance" to liberate all Lebanese territory (ie the Shebaa farms).

Low-level engagement with Hezbollah reflects an acknowledgement of its powerful position within the divided Lebanese state. However, calls for its disarmament will fall on deaf ears unless a host of other factors occur beforehand. This is not an argument against engagement, but a call for realism that understands that simply agreeing to meet with your enemies does not give you the power to dictate terms.