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.