Iran Tightens its Grip on Lebanon in Case Things Get Rough in Syria and Iraq
by Hanin Ghaddar*
Many in Lebanon and the region are wondering what President Trump’s administration is preparing to counter Iran’s efforts in the region, due to many US officials’ anti-Iran and Anti-Hezbollah statements, and mainly after the US military strike in Syria. It’s still unclear what kind of strategy – or whether there will be a comprehensive one – for Iran or the Middle East in general, but no matter the outcome, one thing is for sure: the honey moon that Iran has enjoyed during the Obama era is over. Iran, and consequently Hezbollah, will have to wake up and face a new unpleasant reality.
Whether it is more strikes, sanctions, or diplomatic efforts against Iran and its regional proxies, the US is certainly looking into ways of confronting Iran in the region. For example, the US Congress is reviewing additional and tougher sanctions against Hezbollah, and Kassem Tajeddine – one of Hezbollah’s main financiers, who was designated by the US treasury in 2009 – has already been captured in Morocco and expedited to the US. These and other measures might not force Iran out of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, but they could contain Iran’s operations.
Knowing that their troops and militias will be facing more challenges in Syria and maybe Iraq, Iran is trying today to maximize its gains and translate its advances into long-lasting actualities in the region. Creating a de-facto safe zone under Hezbollah’s control between Damascus and Lebanon’s borders is one way to establish a presence. But Lebanon could be the one place where these gains could be exploited to a higher level and used in order to create a suitable environment that allows Hezbollah to complete its control over all state institutions and decisions in Lebanon. Lebanon would be the safe and permanent backyard for Iran’s army.
Hezbollah knows that they will never achieve the complete and strategic victory in Syria the way they hoped they would when they first entered Syria, and Iran understands the complexities of Iraq and the impossibility of creating a Hezbollah-like control of all its state institutions. In addition, Israel is increasing its strikes against Hezbollah in Syria; last but not least its strike on Hezbollah arms depots near the Damascus airport. And on the political level, negotiations and talks are taking place between the US and Russia, Russia and turkey, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Russia and Israel, where deals are being proposed and discussed, all while Iran is being more and more distanced from the table of negotiations and suffering more isolation.
They know that these international negotiations are not going to end well for Assad or Iran’s other proxies. Something’s got to give and it will not be long before Iran will be more scrutinized everywhere in the region. Therefore, Hezbollah is not going to let go of the opportunity presented by the upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon to safeguard its authority over Lebanon, and guarantee its political control over its institutions.
The electoral law, which is under heated discussion in Lebanon today, will determine the new parliament, and thereby the new government, could be one way of establishing and guaranteeing that control. Hezbollah cannot afford to risk its control over the state institutions in Lebanon, and Iran needs to be the main decider when it comes to Lebanon’s security and military decisions. The new electoral law is vital for Hezbollah because it will determine all that.
Since the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, two parliamentary elections took place, one in 2005 and another in 2009. In both cases, the pro-West and anti-Hezbollah March 14 political camp won these elections and managed to form a government. But in both cases, Hezbollah had to resort to violence or the threat of violence to change the results of the democratic parliamentary elections. First time, they formed the biggest and longest sit-in in downtown Beirut for a year and a half, which only ended with the May 7 events of 2008, and the Doha agreement that resulted in the “National Unity Government.” This accord basically removed the March 14 government and replaced it with a government that cannot govern. The second time, Hezbollah simply overthrew the PM Saad Hariri’s government and threatened with the “black shirts” phenomena – which is showing the potential of a repeated May 7 events – and got its ally former PM Najib Mikati to form a new government.
This time, Hezbollah doesn’t want to risk losing anymore. Hezbollah’s and The Amal Movement’s candidates will win no matter what the law is, simply because their community does not have another political alternative. Therefore, no matter how high the discontent is, they would still win. What Hezbollah is really concerned about is its Sunni, Christian and Druze allies. These generally lost both the 2005 and 2009 parliamentary elections, and Hezbollah is too busy in the region to stage another coup against its opponents in case they win.
In terms of logistics, the parliamentary elections were scheduled to take place between May 21 and June 21, but deadlock over the new electoral law could lead to a delay of the polls. The problem is that the parliament has extended its mandate twice, in 2013 and 2014, over security fears.
It is going to be very hard and complicated to extend the parliament’s term again, and it doesn’t seem that the political elite are adamant on another extension. In April, Lebanese President Michel Aoun suspended the parliament for a month to block plans to extend the assembly’s term without election for the third time, aiming to push politicians to agree on election law reforms.
The deadline for a consensus is May 15, 2017, after which there are many scenarios. One of them is void and chaos. But no matter what, Hezbollah will make sure that no law that would jeopardize its allies will pass. This time, the elections are more vital and existential than ever.
Hezbollah needs Lebanon to be its safe and accommodating place to fall back to in case things get rough in Syria. Iran also needs Lebanon as its backyard where they can threaten and start wars against Israel whenever Iran finds it convenient. Lebanon, its state institutions, and the Lebanese people should not be able to say no. But looking at the bigger picture, Lebanon is today linked geographically to Hezbollah-controlled area in Syria. After the deals over Zabadani and Madaya last month, most of the areas between Damascus and Lebanon’s borders are not only Hezbollah-controlled, but also demographically altered. This political and demographic domination in this area, and its continuous link to Lebanon, only makes Hezbollah stronger in Lebanon, that is if the elections turned to the Party of God’s favor.
This is a very decisive and vital moment for Lebanon, and the upcoming decisions on the electoral law might change the political scene in Lebanon for the worse. It doesn’t seem that the international community is putting serious weight in Lebanon, mainly when it comes to this particular issue. Most of the international concern is being focused on the security issues and maintaining the stability of Lebanon. However, after Hezbollah imposes its desired law and thereby electoral results and parliament, Lebanon will look closer to an Iranian colony, and this cannot necessarily be characterized as stability.
*Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.