Iran has pulled out the vast majority of its Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon after two decades as a major player among the country's Shiite population, most notably as the impetus for the creation of Hezbollah, according to U.S. and European officials.
At one point, Iran was estimated to have as many as 2,000 of its elite troops inside Lebanon. But today Tehran is reported to have from 12 to 50 military personnel in the country -- and probably on the lower end of that range, the officials said.
"We want all foreign influences out of Lebanon," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said earlier this month.
Although the phased drawdown began more than five years ago, senior officials and policymakers at the State Department and the National Security Council, in both the Bush and Clinton administrations, said they were unaware of it -- and were surprised to learn of the moves long after the fact.
As recently as this month, Washington continued to press for the withdrawal of Iranian as well as Syrian forces from Lebanon.
Pressed on Iran's military presence in Lebanon earlier this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said: "We want all foreign influences out of Lebanon. And I'm sure that there are multiple foreign influences in Lebanon. We all know that the Iranians have links also with Hezbollah."
It is unclear whether Rice had been informed that most Iranian troops were gone, but other senior officials as recently as Friday estimated that Iran still had about 800 troops in Lebanon and did not know of the pullout until they inquired with U.S. intelligence sources. Iran has also not publicly mentioned a troop reduction.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards, who were deployed in response to Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, were pivotal in the formation and military training of Hezbollah. Their withdrawal further changes the local political and security dynamics, as Syria also pulls out its troops, because Iran is now less likely to try to return, officials say.
At the same time, however, Iran remains Hezbollah's main supplier and political ally, providing millions of dollars in financial aid, most of its military equipment -- including Katyusha rockets that have been fired on Israel -- and military expertise, the officials said. U.S. and European officials are particularly concerned about Iran's influence on Hezbollah and other factions that reject the Arab-Israeli peace process.
A senior U.S. official warned not to equate the number of Iranians in Lebanon with its influence, noting that Lebanon's Shiite community will be one of the enduring allies of Iran, which is predominantly Shiite. Iranian or Iranian-trained clergy in Lebanon have played key roles since the 1970s in politicizing local Shiites, who make up the largest of Lebanon's 17 recognized religious groups.
"Iran plays a key role in supporting logistically, politically and materially a whole variety of elements in resisting the peace process. It's active in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories," added a senior State Department official familiar with Lebanon policy and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of ongoing diplomacy.
Yet in contrast to the 1980s and 1990s, Iranians are now deployed in Lebanon largely as military advisers and may even be accredited to the Iranian Embassy in Beirut as military attaches, which would give them a legal right to be there, U.S. and Europeans officials say.
U.S. and European officials are uncertain why Iran has quietly withdrawn its troops, beginning in the late 1990s -- and long before the United Nations passed Resolution 1559 last August calling for the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. But officials speculate that after a generation of a hands-on Iranian role, Hezbollah has become self-sufficient.
The Shiite party, which began as a clandestine movement with a secret membership tied to extremist attacks, suicide bombings and hostage-taking of Westerners in Beirut, has evolved over the past 23 years into a recognized political party with elected members in Lebanon's parliament -- and a military wing deployed along Israel's border.
Another U.S. official familiar with Iran suggested that Tehran may have wanted to deploy its elite units elsewhere, although a Middle East diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity suggested that Iran has enough forces not to need to withdraw from Lebanon if it had wanted to stay.