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Copyright 2004 Haaretz
January 25

HEADLINE: Analysis / Iran's key role in Kuntar formula

BYLINE: Zvi Bar'el

The prisoner swap was described yesterday by a Lebanese commentator as Hezbollah's "golden deal." From Hezbollah's perspective, it is indeed a very good deal that will bolster the organization's political standing in Lebanon for some time. By following through on the commitments made to the families of Lebanese prisoners, by releasing a greater number of Palestinian prisoners than the Palestinian Authority has ever done, and by freeing prisoners from Syria, Morocco and Libya, Hezbollah will gain new legitimacy after a period in which it had come under criticism at home.

The agreement could not have been concluded without Iranian assistance. Behind German mediator Ernst Uhrlau's short expression of appreciation was an Iranian-German-Lebanese connection that paved the way for the deal. When the negotiations became deadlocked in November, with Israel insisting it would not release Samir Kuntar (who carried out a terrorist attack in Nahariya), and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah refusing to make a deal without Kuntar, the search began for a "magic formula" to solve this impasse. Despite Nasrallah's public declaration that "time is running out," he made it clear to Uhrlau that he was open to new suggestions. After hearing this, Uhrlau traveled several times to Iran - not only to try to attain information about Ron Arad, but also to try to convince the Iranians to pressure Hezbollah to give up its demand for Kuntar.

During this same time, Iran was holding talks with Germany, France and Britain on a protocol for preventing nuclear proliferation. Uhrlau played a major role in these talks, strengthening his relationships with Iranian leaders and, in particular, with the secretary-general of Iran's national security council, Hasan Rowhani. According to German sources, Rowhani agreed to help facilitate the prisoner swap and to obtain information about Arad. Soon afterward, the Iranians informed Uhrlau that they had no new information about Arad, but had "encouraged" Hezbollah to conclude a deal. In return for this Iranian assistance, Germany may have agreed to release Iranian prisoners convicted of murdering Kurds in Germany in 1992.

Syria was not mentioned at Uhrlau's press conference yesterday, but it was also called upon to apply pressure on Hezbollah. The German mediator reminded Syria that it "owed" Germany for dropping a case involving a textile factory in which Syrian intelligence agents were apparently involved. (One of the workers in this factory reportedly recruited Mohammed Ata, one of the chief planners of the 9/11 attacks.) Syria will receive five of its citizens in the current prisoner swap.

According to Lebanese sources, Uhrlau traveled to Lebanon last month with a new Israeli message that included a promise to significantly shorten Kuntar's prison term. Nasrallah demanded a precise timetable for Kuntar's release. In the end, a German proposal was accepted to leave the Kuntar issue for separate negotiations to be completed within two months. Iran was asked again to pressure Hezbollah to accept this proposal and this intervention was apparently decisive.

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