US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s warning to Lebanon was controversial, as expected. It came amidst two major events. The night prior to his Beirut trip, US President Donald Trump declared US recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War, and later annexed.
While still in Tel Aviv, Pompeo praised the announcement as "historic" and "bold," agreeing in an interview with the Christian Broadcast Network that the US President might have been sent by God to protect Israel.
On the first day of his visit to Beirut, Washington hit Iran with new sanctions. The Treasury Department said the sanctions target 31 Iranian scientists, technicians and companies affiliated with Iran's Organization for Defense Innovation and Research, which had been at the forefront of the country's former nuclear weapons program. Officials said those targeted continue to work in Iran's defense sector and form a core of experts who could reconstitute that program.
These two events are probably not coincidences. They were meant to mark Pompeo’s visit with efficiency and credibility. The US wanted to send clear messages to its allies in Tel Aviv, and to its adversaries in Lebanon, mainly Hezbollah and Iran.
THE MESSAGES WERE WELL RECEIVED
The press conferences and the pro-Hezbollah bravado we heard from Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, President Aoun, and Speaker Nabih Berri, were all expected and presumed. But slogans aside, it was clear that Hezbollah’s allies were not very comfortable with what they heard from the US Secretary of State.
Although Bassil denied that Hezbollah was a terrorist group, and said that it "enjoys a wide popular base," Pompeo said in his interview with Sky News Arabia that the Lebanese leadership [all of it] agreed with him about Hezbollah. "They understand -- President [Michel] Aoun, the foreign minister -- they both understand the need for Lebanese freedom, democracy, independence, sovereignty," Pompeo said.
This statement probably refers to what Pompeo heard from them privately, which contradicts the official press releases they gave afterwards. This is also not surprising, knowing that many of Hezbollah’s allies have criticized the party in private meetings. For example, the WikiLeaks documents show that Speaker Berri not only has viciously criticized Hezbollah, but also suggested ways of containing or weakening the party of god, during his meetings with the US ambassadors.
Hezbollah’s allies usually complain about the party to American officials when they feel the pressure. They have done so after the Cedar Revolution of 2005, the July war of 2006, and the May events of 2008. If they are also complaining today, it means the Aoun, Bassil and Berri are feeling the pressure, as the US is putting serious pressure on the president, foreign minister, and prime minister to find ways to distance themselves from Hezbollah. This might also encourage some leaders and parties that are not part of this camp to speak up more forcefully.
These pressures could also be combines with threats that these allies might have heard from Pompeo – and other US officials – of more sanctions.
The US is determined to intensify the sanctions against Iran and Hezbollah, now that there are signs that they are working and hurting. However, future sanctions might start going beyond the tight Hezbollah circles and target Hezbollah’s allies.
These are ideas that many policy makers in Washington are already discussing and pushing. If one also looks at the second round of HIFPA sanctions against Hezbollah, there are clear hints at Hezbollah’s allies such as Berri, Aoun, and others from the Free Patriotic Movement, Amal Movement, and the Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP).
So far, Hezbollah’s allies have been able to reap the benefits of Iran’s friendship and patronage, without having to pay a price for it. The US administration also understands that Hezbollah wouldn’t have won the recent parliamentary elections and formed the government without these allies. The time for these to pay the price might be approaching, and Pompeo’s message on sanctions was very loud and clear in Beirut.
“Lebanon faces a choice: bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation, or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future,” Pompeo told the Lebanese during a press conference. However, this was mostly seen as a message to Lebanon’s leadership.
Pompeo’s warning was heard loud and clear. Lebanese leaders understand the repercussions of allowing Hezbollah to control Lebanon’s state institutions. The question is two-fold: one, will Hezbollah’s allies decide to jump ship to protect themselves – and their businesses – from US sanctions? And two, even if they do want to jump ship, can they? That is, would Hezbollah allow it?
Hezbollah’s allies and their businesses are probably too tied to Hezbollah’s industry. They made their money because of the business deals that Hezbollah allowed and facilitated. Jumping ship might also mean sacrificing their businesses and assets. They might be too deep in. The only way to force Hezbollah’s allies to make this “sacrifice” is to make them realize that there is a price for allying with Hezbollah. Sanctioning a few might send a message, and Pompeo might have made that warning.
There is also the question of how Hezbollah will deal with this escalation and warning. The party’s finances are already in a very bad shape and they can barely pay salaries to their employees and fighters. Pompeo promised more sanctions and financial pressure, which will make their financial situation even worse.
Hezbollah has a two-fold plan that requires time and patience, although not guaranteed to succeed. One, Hezbollah will try to compensate their lack of funds by trying to tap into the funds of Lebanon’s state institutions. The problem with that plan is that Lebanon’s economy is already in a very bad shape and there might not be any more funds for Hezbollah to tap into. Channeling funds from state institutions to their own institutions is also going to be a dangerous attempt as all eyes are now monitoring Hezbollah’s handling of their ministries and the ministries headed by their allies.
As this endeavor could prove too complicated and risky, Hezbollah will have to make do with what they have – in addition to what they can get from Iraq – to survive these sanction, and the upcoming ones.
Second, Hezbollah’s main plan is to wait. Pompeo promised more sanction, but they also know that this administration will have to face presidential elections in November 2020. Iran and Hezbollah have decided to wait these sanctions out for the time being, until the 2020 elections.
If Trump loses the elections, and a Democrat wins, Iran and Hezbollah hopes that the US will re-enter the nuclear deal agreement JCOPA. Sanctions could be lifted and Pompeo’s warning might become ineffective. However, if this administration gets another four years term, Iran might have to reconsider a number of issues, including its behavior in the region.
Some observers close to Hezbollah do not even believe that the party and its sponsors in Iran could actually last until 2020 – financially speaking. A collapse might be sooner than we think.
Hanin Ghaddar is the inaugural Friedmann Visiting Fellow at The Washington Institute.