Over the past few days, Iranian and Hezbollah-aligned media have dedicated much attention, and animus, to news of the death of Majed al-Majed, the former emir of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, who was recently apprehended by the Lebanese Armed Forces. The Iranians and their Lebanese arm have systematically pushed a storyline tying Majed to Saudi intelligence. The purpose of this messaging campaign is to isolate Riyadh while playing up the emerging US alignment with Iran across the region – a proposition that seems to enjoy support in the US media and policy circles.
Hezbollah's focus on Saudi Arabia is hardly new or surprising. However, especially after the attack on the Iranian embassy last November, for which the Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed credit, pro-Hezbollah media has been selling a particular narrative: Sunni extremism is sponsored by Saudi Arabia and is a shared threat bringing together Iran and the US.
So, immediately after the embassy bombing, Sami Kleib, the news director of the pro-Iranian Al-Mayadeen TV, wrote in the Hezbollah mouthpiece Al-Akhbar that the attack on the embassy actually presented a useful opportunity to push this narrative: "Which is more important to America now, a state like Iran, which can help in combating terrorism from Afghanistan to the Middle East? Or Saudi Arabia, which stands accused since the World Trade Center bombings until today of providing a nurturing environment to al-Qaeda and of arming takfiris?" Kleib added that Lebanese President Michel Suleiman had heard from his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani that "external parties were behind the extremist terrorist groups." This was a reference to Saudi Arabia, where Suleiman had been on an official visit just a few days earlier.
Kleib's article represented the template for the Iranian messaging campaign that ensued, aimed at tying Riyadh to the attack. Sure enough, a few days later, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah openly accused Saudi Arabia of being behind the bombing. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades' claim of responsibility offered a particularly tantalizing opening since its emir, Majed, was a Saudi national (of course, there was little mention in the pro-resistance press that he was on his country’s most-wanted list). Therefore, when news broke that Majed had been arrested, the pro-Hezbollah media was beside itself with excitement at the possibilities for a huge propaganda coup. In addition, the Iranians submitted a request to join in Majed's interrogation. For all these reasons, Al-Akhbar editor Ibrahim Amin made sure to pen a column warning against letting Majed, who was suffering from kidney failure, die in custody, "be it from his disease or murder."
Ultimately, the pro-Hezbollah media didn't even wait for the interrogation to begin and started printing what Majed was supposedly going to confess. The gist of it is that he wasn't a mere terrorist: rather, he was a Saudi security officer, working in close collaboration with Saudi intelligence under the direction of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and in cooperation with the Saudi embassy in Lebanon. When Majed finally succumbed to his illness, the disappointment among pro-Hezbollah journalists was palpable. Some Iranian officials even openly accused the Saudis of liquidating Majed. Still, this didn’t prevent Iran and Hezbollah from proceeding with the fabrication of all kinds of stories about his ties to Prince Bandar, or about the supposed arrest of a companion of his, who, naturally, was Bandar’s son.
The emphasis on Bandar is not haphazard. Tehran’s messaging campaign is aimed at the Americans, and the Iranians are fully aware that they have a sympathetic ear in Washington. For instance, Iranian officials cannot have missed how some in the Obama administration deliberately leaked US displeasure with the Saudi intelligence chief. One such leak disclosed how, in meetings with US officials, Secretary of State John Kerry “singled out Prince Bandar as ‘the problem,’ complaining about his conduct.” The reason Bandar is “the problem” is because he’s not falling in line with President Obama’s Syria policy, even if it favors Iranian interests over Saudi’s.
The alignment of US policy with Iran’s interests extends beyond Syria to Iraq and Lebanon – a fact that Iranian and Hezbollah messaging does not fail to highlight. Pro-Hezbollah pundits now talk of a “front against terrorism” that intersects with US efforts and priorities, stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
To accentuate the alignment with the US across the region, the Iranians publicly offered to help the Obama administration in supporting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s campaign in al-Anbar province. Moreover, the pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar disclosed that Majed's arrest came as a result of a US intelligence tip to the LAF. It’s worth noting that it was the LAF’s Directorate of Intelligence – which is particularly close to Hezbollah – which made the arrest. Consequently, it's hard to read Washington's move as anything other than intelligence sharing with Hezbollah in a case involving an attack on an Iranian target in Beirut – precisely the idea Iran wants to drive home.
Selling this alignment in Beirut and Baghdad as support for ostensibly “national” central governments or militaries is convenient for both Iran and the US. In reality, however, Washington has glossed over Maliki's overt sectarianism and effectively consented to a growing synergy between Hezbollah and the LAF. This could explain Hezbollah’s alarm at Riyadh’s $3 billion grant to the LAF, for fear it might eventually take away an increasingly necessary instrument for the Shiite party.
Whatever the cover, however, Washington’s emerging alignment with Tehran is at this point becoming an open secret. In any case, the enthusiastic endorsement of this realignment by US policy and media elites, who have bought the White House’s contention that disparate groups of Sunni extremists pose a graver strategic threat than a nuclear Iran, is making Tehran's messaging campaign an easy sell.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.