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The Iran Primer

Emile Hokayem's Blog

Iran and Hezbollah: The balance of power shifts in Lebanon

Emile Hokayem

  • How does the selection of new Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati--a Sunni Muslim hand-picked by Hezbollah, a Shiite movement--alter Iran’s influence or reach in Lebanese politics in practical terms?
The swift change in government reflects the ascendancy of Hezbollah in Lebanese affairs over the past two decades. Through its forceful backing of Mikati, Hezbollah has clearly demonstrated that it is the dominant political and military force in Lebanon. Thanks to its organic links to the Shiite organization, Iran emerges stronger from recent political shifts in Lebanon.
At the same time, by forcibly removing Saad Hariri, the paramount Sunni leader whose community is entitled to the position of prime minister, Hezbollah has ventured in the highly explosive sectarian arena and has become vulnerable to accusations that it is behaving as a sectarian actor. This affects Iran’s image as well. Indeed, Hezbollah’s rivals, both Christian and Sunni, have been quick to denounce it as a Shiite and Iranian project. Iran is therefore irremediably tainted in the eyes of a significant segment of the Lebanese population.
  • Iran helped create Hezbollah, a Shiite movement, after Israel’s 1982 invasion. But Hezbollah also has strong indigenous roots in Lebanon, reflected in parliamentary elections since 1992. How much influence does Iran have over Hezbollah today and how has it changed in the past three decades?
Hezbollah was once an Iranian proxy, but it has clearly outgrown this status over the past two decades to become Iran’s brother-in-arms. The relationship is complex and multi-directional: beyond its strategic value against Israel, Hezbollah’s successes and popularity in the Arab world make it a treasured interlocutor for Tehran.
Hezbollah operates firmly within Iran’s strategic orbit but on political and day-to-day matters in Lebanon, Hezbollah enjoys great autonomy. Its electoral victories are the result of its successful if reluctant entry into Lebanese political life. Its smart positioning, successes against Israel, social services network and the competence of its leader Hassan Nasrallah have rallied Lebanon’s Shiite community. This is, however, complicated by the triangular relationship with Syria. When Syria occupied Lebanon, Hezbollah had to bow to Syrian strategic imperatives which, at times, differed with Iran. Since Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, Iran’s influence has grown.
  • How will Iran’s influence on Lebanon be affected or tempered by other parties who will be part of a multi-party and multi-confessional cabinet?
Iran is viewed suspiciously by many Lebanese. Fears that Iran seeks to establish an “Islamic Republic on the Mediterranean”, however overblown, are real. More importantly, there is a genuine concern that Hezbollah will draw Lebanon into a war with Israel to do Iran’s bidding.
Iran seeks to preserve Hezbollah as an essential element of its deterrence and defense posture against Israel and the United States. This goal has been attained now that no Lebanese cabinet, more so one imposed by Hezbollah, can constrain Hezbollah’s strategic choices in matters of war and peace. Iran will let Hezbollah manage its relations with other Lebanese actors and make tactical deals to preserve that state of affairs.
  • How does Iran’s influence play out on specific domestic, economic or foreign policy issues?
Iran is not interested in determining domestic or economic policy in Lebanon, or imposing its rigid Islamic rules onto the Lebanese population. Hezbollah itself is reluctant to do so: it means swimming in the treacherous waters of Lebanese politics at the risk of ruining its image as an incorruptible and competent resistance group. Hezbollah was drawn deeper into Lebanese politics because of its need to protect its armed status and ‘resistance’ from the criticism of rival factions after the Syrian withdrawal.
In fact, Hezbollah seeks to remain above the state rather than to be the state. The militia and Iran are primarily concerned about having a dominant say in the country’s foreign, security and defense policy to make sure Hezbollah’s armed status is not threatened by UN resolutions or Lebanon’s relations with the West or Arab states.
  • Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom recently described Lebanon’s new government as “an Iranian government on Israel’s northern border.” And Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi visited Damascus on January 24, with Lebanon as one of the main topics of discussion. How will the new Lebanese government alter regional dynamics?
Much will depend on the composition of the new Lebanese government and its acceptance by the international community, including the West and Arab countries. It could be cautiously welcomed or completely ostracized.
The new situation is not without difficulties for Hezbollah. Hezbollah’s military strategy has always been to remain distinct from the state because a non-state actor is more flexible and can better fight and survive a war. In a future conflict, Israel will consider the Lebanese state as an accomplice and an extension of Hezbollah. And with Hezbollah the kingmaker, it will be difficult for the United States or any other actor to convince Israel to distinguish between the two.
Syria finds itself in a complicated situation. Its ally scored a victory for the Jabhat al-Mumana’a—or the Front of Refusal—and neutralized its Lebanese critics, yet it is not comfortable with a situation that increases the chances of war. Syria makes different calculations about the conduct and outcome of a conflict with Israel than Hezbollah or Iran.
  • How does Hezbollah’s political victory affect Washington’s strategic interests in the region—and its effort to pressure Iran on its controversial nuclear program?
U.S. policy has undoubtedly suffered a major blow. While Lebanon is not a top U.S. interest, it is the bellwether of regional politics. Iran’s allies have defeated both militarily and politically U.S.-backed factions and derive a great sense of confidence in its regional reach.
Emile Hokayem is the senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

President Ahmadinejad's Trip to Lebanon

Emile Hokayem

       The two-day visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon on Oct. 13-14 was a thunderous display of Iranian "soft power" and a testament to the strength of Tehran's relationship with its Shiite ally Hezbollah. Yet the visit did not reflect any shift in Iran's policy in Lebanon, despite the new bilateral agreements they signed. It was instead a victory lap and a defiant demonstration of Iran's reach in the face of Israel, the United States and
Arab officialdom.

       The official welcome for Ahmadinejad by the Lebanese state, which included an honorary degree from Lebanese University, was overshadowed by Hezbollah's reception. For his fiery speeches, Hezbollah assembled massive crowds in both its strongholds of Dahyiah, the poor southern suburbs of Beirut, and in Bint Jbeil, the southern town near the Israeli border that symbolizes Hezbollah's military persistence during the month-long war in 2006.
Ahmadinejad's visit to southern Lebanon is the closest any Iranian leader has come to Israel since the 1979 revolution. It significantly heightened tensions along one of the Middle East's most volatile borders. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, presented Ahmadinejad with an Israeli rifle seized during the 2006 war.

       The Iranian leader reprised the themes of the struggle against injustice, Israel and the United States. He celebrated Hezbollah's fighters, "martyrs" and followers. He pledged continued support for the powerful Lebanese militia and political party until its "victory" against Israel. Although the visit was controversial among Lebanon's rival religious sects, many Lebanese clearly shared a deep emotional connection with Ahmadinejad. The Shiite
community, the largest of Lebanon's 18 recognized religions, was both sympathetic with his worldview and grateful for Iran's political, financial and military support for Hezbollah. Tehran contributed millions of dollars for reconstruction of southern Lebanon after the 2006 war.

       Ahmadinejad's visit also came against a backdrop of deepening political tensions inside Lebanon. Many of Hezbollah's opponents were either uneasy or hostile during Ahmadinejad's brief visit. Hezbollah also expects the Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up by the United Nations to soon indict some of its members for the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Ahmadinejad painted the tribunal as a tool of the West. Hezbollah has
challenged the tribunal's legitimacy and its proceedings. The movement, which is currently part of the governing coalition, has also reportedly tried to intimidate the Lebanese government into denouncing the U.N. investigation.

       Lebanese authorities, including President Michel Sleiman, had to play a delicate balancing game between accommodating a foreign leader with powerful local allies and not offending their Western and Arab partners who are deeply suspicious of Iran's intentions. One of the issues at stake is a $100 million U.S. aid package to help strengthen the Lebanese military.

Read Emile Hokayem's chapter on Iran and Lebanon in “The Iran Primer” 

Emile Hokayem is a senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the Middle East.


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