AUGUSTA, Maine — When Sen. Angus King’s office publicized his five-day trip to the Middle East last week, they left one stop off the published itinerary: Lebanon. The public was left unaware of the stop in Beirut, that nation’s capital, for security reasons, a decision that proved telling.
King and fellow Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., were having meetings at the U.S. embassy there on Wednesday when two suicide bombers from an extremist Sunni group targeted the nearby Iranian cultural center with car bombs, killing themselves and four others.
The area is a stronghold of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the civil war in neighboring Syria. It was the seventh such bombing in Beirut’s southern suburbs since July.
The Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaida-linked group, claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was a response to the intervention of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian war. More than 100 people were wounded, and Lebanon’s Sunni Prime Minister, Tammam Salam, condemned the bombing as an act of terrorism.
Speaking from Logan International Airport in Boston, having just arrived back in the U.S., King said the attack happened in a part of the city he had passed through just the day before, within eyesight and earshot of the embassy, though King said he didn’t see or hear the attack himself.
“I was in a closed room, and when I came out, they said they could hear it and see the smoke,” King said.
He was scheduled to meet with Salam and assumed the meeting would be canceled, but it wasn’t. About an hour after the bombing, he was driving through the city en route to meet the prime minister.
“I told the ambassador in the car with me, ‘Life is going on here,’” King said. “There were people in the street, buying gas, going into stores. If this had happened in Washington, the whole place would have been closed.”
During the meeting, Salam often stopped the conversation to take calls to get more information about the bombing, King said. He called the experience “surreal” and said the bombing was illustrative of his biggest takeaway from his short trip to Lebanon.
“Lebanon is experiencing what I’d call an ‘echo’ of the war in Syria,” he said. ”That’s what this was — a Sunni extremist bombing an Iranian cultural center to punish Shiites and Hezbollah for supporting Assad.”
The country’s population is just 4 million, King said, but more than 900,000 refugees from Syria have poured over the nation’s borders. “That would be like, in the course of a year, having 75 million new refugees in the U.S.,” he said.
As far as the public knew last week, King and Kaine would spend their entire trip in Israel and the West Bank, meeting with high-level officials — including both nations’ prime ministers and top peace negotiators — to discuss ongoing peace talks, as well as an interim deal between Iran and the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council, plus Germany, that lifted the decades-old trade sanctions on Iran in exchange for a short-term freeze on portions of that nation’s nuclear program. The deal is meant to be a stopgap while a more long-term agreement is negotiated.
King said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lodged a fierce criticism of the deal, which he said took the pressure off Iran just when the sanctions were about to make the country give up its nuclear ambitions entirely. Israel is vehemently opposed to Iran’s nuclear program, fearing it would be an immediate target of a nuclear strike if the nation succeeds in building the bomb.
“I said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I understand you feel that way, but these negotiations are happening and the question is now how we all collectively ensure that we find a solution that’s satisfactory to everyone concerned, and how Israel can contribute with knowledge and information to make sure the solution reached is a good one,’” King recalled.
The senator said in the interview that even though it’s a world away, the goings-on in Iran are of critical importance to Mainers. He said that if Iran goes nuclear, it would have a domino effect that could easily see an atomic weapon fall into the hands of anti-American extremists.
It may not even take a rogue actor to put America in danger if Iran develops the nuclear bomb, he said.
“Iran is working on the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles,” he said. “You don’t need one of those to get to Israel. You need one to get to London or New York. This isn’t just a Middle Eastern issue.”
King is a member of the Senate committees on armed services and intelligence, and said he will brief his colleagues on his Middle East trip after the U.S. Senate resumes session on Monday.
Reuters reporters Laila Bassam and Alexander Dziadosz contributed to this story from Beirut. Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.