At first glance, Lebanon, the second smallest Arab country after Bahrain, may appear as an insignificant piece in the giant jigsaw puzzle that makes the Greater Middle East, spanning from western Asia to North Africa.
Right now, however, Lebanon may have assumed a strategic importance above its geographical size. In the Great Game in the Middle East, Lebanon is a crucial pawn the control of which determines the outcome.
The media in Tehran are paying almost as much attention to the Lebanese election on 7 June as to the Islamic Republic’s presidential election five days later. Tehran analysts believe that the Lebanese election could affect the Iranian presidential race.
“We are heading for a hot June,” an analysis, published by the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), said last week. “Victory in Lebanon will signal the start of our victory everywhere.”
The idea is that if the coalition led by the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah wins a majority in the next parliament in Beirut, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be able to claim another success for his policy of defiance against the United States and moderate Arab regimes.
Seizing control of Lebanon through Hezbollah is the only topic on which Iranian presidential candidates agree. Both Ahmadinejad and his main rival, Mir-Hussein Mussavi Khamenehi, describe the Lebanese Hezbollah as “a child of our revolution”. Both believe that its victory will strengthen the weakened position of the regime in Iran.
Tehran expects the Lebanese election to signal a “systemic change”, bringing it in line with the broader Khomeinist worldview. Lebanon would become a “bunker for the Khomeinist revolution” rather than a “beach for corrupt westernized elites.”
Speeches made by Hezbollah candidates, like Nawwaf al-Mussawi, who insist that the election is not “about winning seats but changing the established order”, echo that view.
Elections in Lebanon come at a time that several factors coincide in favor of Iran.
The United States is still struggling to develop a coherent policy in the Middle East, one that maintains President George W. Bush’s strategy without resembling it. The resulting confusion prevents the Obama administration from understanding what is going on, let alone influencing it in a significant way.
The absence of Syrian troops on Lebanese soil is also advantageous to Tehran.
The fact that the Syrians were forced out revealed their vulnerability.
Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, speaks of the difference between an Islam of victory and an Islam of defeat. It is clear that he includes Syria in the latter category while Iran leads the former.
Arab states, including Syria, suffered four major defeats at the hands of Israel, he recalls. However, Hezbollah, backed by Iran, succeeded in “defeating the strongest army in the region”. Hezbollah managed to “liberate” southern Lebanon while Syria’s Golan Heights remain under Israeli occupation, Nasrallah notes.
Divisions among Arab states also favor Tehran.
Ahmadinejad hopes to “Finlandize” a number of Arab states. The term was invented during the Cold War, as the Soviet Union insisted that neighboring Finland remain neutral, and develop no policies inimical to Moscow.
Tehran analysts believe that at least three Arab states, Oman, Qatar and Yemen have already been “Finlandized” in the sense that they would not join any action to oppose Iranian hegemony.
Two other Arab states, Syria and the Sudan, are regarded as “client-allies” likely to support rather than oppose Iran’s ambitions.
Two other Arab states, Algeria and Libya, are expected to remain neutral, albeit for different reasons.
In this analysis, one key Arab state, Iraq, is regarded as uncertain because its future political course will not be determined until after its general election in January 2010.
There are two other players in this game: Turkey and Israel.
Turkey, under a moderate Islamic regime, could emerge as a long-term threat to Khomeinist ambitions. For the time being, however, its lack of experience of regional politics and its schizophrenia, caused by European ambitions clashing with dreams of leadership in Islam, prevent it from playing its full potential.
Israel, too, is unable to punch according to its weight for a number of reasons.
It has a weak coalition government whose expected lifespan does not exceed 18 months. Speculation about Barack Obama’s supposed “coolness” toward Israel also undermines the Jewish state’s ability to project power in the region. Also, for the first time in decades, Israel has virtually no allies in Lebanon.
Lebanon under Iranian control could become one arm of a pincer, the other being Hamas-controlled Gaza, designed to subject Israel to a low intensity war which would, in time, sap its will to resist.
Russia is watching the proceedings with a mixture of hope and fear.
The victory of Iran’s clients would enable the Islamic Republic to bring its navy to the Mediterranean, using the port of Beirut as a hub. That would open the way for securing mooring rights at the Syrian port of Lattakiyah.
Winning control of Lebanon would give Iran a direct presence on the Mediterranean for the first time in almost 1500 years.
That would make it easier for Russia to seek a Syrian base for its Black Sea fleet, set to lose its lease in Sebastopol in Ukraine in 2017.
More importantly, perhaps, the emergence of Iran as a regional power with friendly ties to Russia, symbolized by Moscow’s role in building the Iranian nuclear capacity, could undermine decades of US presence as the sole key player in the Grater Middle East.
Nevertheless, Moscow also fears the emergence of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic close to Russia’s border.
Regarding Lebanon as a profitable investment in political terms, Tehran has loosened its purse strings as never before. According to sources in Washington, the pro-Tehran camp has outspent the opposing 14 March coalition to the tune of two-to-one.
“Lebanon is the only place where the economy is booming at this time,” says a former administration official in Washington. “The reason is the checkbook war waged by rival camps trying to win the June elections.”
As always, however, things concerning Lebanon are not as simple as they might appear in Tehran or Washington, or anywhere else for that matter. Tehran’s hopes of a spectacular victory in Lebanon next month could still hit a wall. The best schemes of mice and men do not always work.
Amir Taheri’s new book “The Persian Night” is published by Encounter Books in New York and London.