Lebanon's Iran-Sponsored Crisis Deepens

International Plan Needed to Stop Decline
Lebanese President, Michel Aoun (L) receives Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri (R) at Baabda Presidential Palace in Beirut, Lebanon on February 12, 2021. (Getty)
Lebanese women gather at Bishara El Huri street during a demonstration to protest against the living conditions brought about by the economic crisis in the country and the forced migration of young people for working, in Beirut, Lebanon on March 20, 2021. (Getty)

After the last meeting with the president to form a new cabinet, PM designate Saad Hariri called Aoun’s demands “unacceptable”. He insisted that it is not the job of the President to form cabinets and that the constitution clearly states that the PM-designate would form a government. Hariri is right, but what prompted him to confront the President – knowing that he acting on behalf of Hezbollah – and why now – after more than a dozen meetings of the same?

Two issues need to be highlighted. One, Hariri has been trying on behalf of French President Emmanuel Macron, based on the ‘French Initiative,” so his frustrations echoes Macron’s frustration with Lebanon’s political class, who are very good at buying time and doing nothing. Two, Lebanon’s crisis has reached unprecedented levels that another government failure would lead to a worse financial and security deterioration. Hence, Lebanon no longer enjoys the luxury of time.

Hezbollah as a Ruler

Hezbollah and Iran do not want to resolve the crisis in Lebanon no matter how bad the situation. For Iran, Lebanon is nothing but a bargaining chip that they will use and abuse until they reach a deal with the US over the nuclear program. They are in no rush to make compromises that would jeopardize their power and hegemony over Lebanon, no matter how long the negotiations with the US take. Therefore, Iran – via Hezbollah – has decided to manage the crisis in Lebanon rather than resolve it, even if the whole country, its state institutions, and society, collapse.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah made a significant speech last week, where he brought everyone – including the French Initiative – to square zero. He made it clear that no government would be formed without their blessing and acceptance, and threatened the street and protestors with violence. He made it clear that Iran and Hezbollah are the actual rulers of Lebanon and that no institution or constitution could change that. They have enough arms to take the country’s institutions by force, and they will if they need to. But they’d rather not because they prefer to avoid any blatant action in Lebanon, that would reflect badly on the US-Iran negotiations.

However, this absolute power does not come without consequences. Every country Iran rules suffers from a severe economic crisis, a horrible security situation, and has reached or is close to a serious social explosion. From Lebanon to Yemen, through Syria and Iraq, all the way to Iran itself, people are starving, have no sense of personal or collective security, and lack basic needs. The consequences on Iran are harsh in the sense that these same people realize today that Iran is the problem, not the solution.

Therefore, the perception of Iran and its regional proxies have shifted from that of resistance movements, to one that resembles a dictatorship. Instead of seeking the love and loyalty of the people, Iran today will have to use the fear factor, the threats, and force. In Lebanon too, Hezbollah realizes that the majority of the Shia community no longer trust the Party of God or its Iranian sponsors.

Back to the government formation and the Aoun-Hariri outburst, it will cause shockwaves throughout the vulnerable economy, but nothing more serious than the Beirut Port blast. Basically, it will pass, and the country will continue its collapse. The US Dollar will jump up exponentially, an inflation will again reach unprecedented levels. Meanwhile, Hezbollah will only watch, wait for new orders from Tehran, and continue to link any resolution in Lebanon to gains for Iran in the US-Iran negotiations.

The problem in Lebanon is political, not economic, and as long as Hezbollah and Iran continue to block a political solution, economy will never recover. But the main question remains, if the US-Iran deal doesn’t happen in the next year – that is before the parliamentary elections in Lebanon, which are due in May 2022 – what is Hezbollah’s plan for Lebanon?

Will Hezbollah’s Take-Over Become Official?

In less than a year, Lebanon will no longer be able to maintain subsidies. So far, the Central Bank is still subsidizing essential items such as fuel, wheat, medicine, and some food items. But most of these subsidized items are being smuggled by Hezbollah via Syria to support the Assad regime, and also make money for the group. Today, the Central Bank has started to use the reserves and people’s bank savings to continue subsidizing these items, and Hezbollah is making sure it does not stop, so they could continue their smuggling operations. But eventually, even the reserves are going to dry out, and the social explosion will be clearly pointed at Hezbollah, as the real authority and the reason for the collapse.

During Nasrallah’s latest speech, he hinted at a few scenarios and how Hezbollah will deal with them. Most of them embody threats and violence, but in general, he clearly linked Lebanon to Iran’s regional agenda and American reactions to Iran’s conditions. He didn’t clearly state what exactly Hezbollah would do if they cannot get the government they want or the elections results they prefer, but he hinted at the use of violence to move things in the direction of his interests, like they did before in 2008 and 2010.

Hezbollah and Iran want to change Lebanon as we know it. As Nasrallah suggested, “Hezbollah insists that the crisis must be dealt with within the legal and legitimate frameworks, but if a time comes in which that is no longer the case, we reserve the right to use our own critical options. However, implementing them through the law will not be possible, and we will have to resort to different means.”

This is a clear threat of violence and brutal take-over, and it is a very dangerous cross-road for Lebanon. Nasrallah is basically saying that if Hariri does not form the government they want, Hezbollah will do it by force. But more than that, they will no longer feel the urge to resolve any crisis in Lebanon through the legal and institutional frameworks. In short, Hezbollah will decide that Lebanon no longer exist, and they will create their own Lebanon, by means of arms and violence. 

Accordingly, Lebanon today is at a very dangerous junction: The choices are very limited and the options are difficult. Without a serious international plan to save Lebanon and contain Hezbollah, not only economic the situation will get worse, Hezbollah will use force to draw more power, enforce its own vision, and change Lebanon for good. The 2022 parliamentary elections are very important and the international community should focus on making sure they take place in time and with international supervision, but until then, Lebanon should not be used as a bargaining chip by Iran in its negotiations with the US. The international community could also make that clear.

Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann Fellow at The Washington Institute’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics, where she focuses on Shia politics throughout the Levant.