Until recently, the consensus among analysts of regional politics was that none of the powers involved in Lebanon’s tangled politics had an interest in plunging the country into a major crisis. Three reasons were cited to back that view. The first was that neither of the rival blocs in Lebanon had the initial advantage needed to seek total power. The second was that rival regional and global players were too busy elsewhere, including in Iraq and Egypt, to want to open a new arena of crisis in Lebanon. Finally, the conflict in Syria meant that both sides—that is to say, the Russo–Iranian tandem and the Arab bloc backed by the West—had to prioritize their options by focusing on the struggle for control in Damascus.
Now, however, the three reasons cited above may no longer be convincing.
To start with, the bloc led by Iran clearly feels that it now has the edge. The Islamic Republic has succeeded in hooking the United States into endless negotiations over the nuclear issue, thus removing any possibility of military action against it by either Israel or the US. Tehran’s leaders know that once President Barack Obama’s term ends, US policy may well change radically. Thus they feel they have a maximum of two years in which to exploit America’s confusion and weakness, consolidating their regional gains. That assumption may tempt the mullahs into redeploying their Lebanese pawns in a bid for total domination.
Next, though still full of imponderables, the situation in both Egypt and Iraq has achieved a measure of stability. Even if it proves to be a temporary stratagem, the elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood from the Egyptian scene allows the Arab bloc that is worried about Iranian ambitions to shift its attention back to the Levant. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, though no admirer of the mullahs in his heart of hearts, knows he has no choice but to temporize with Tehran, even if that means antagonizing the Arab bloc.
The third reason things might have changed as far as Lebanon is concerned is the course of the conflict in Syria. The Russo–Iranian tandem that maintains the present Syrian regime in power is now convinced that it could achieve some kind of military victory. The current strategy is to focus on “useful Syria,” that is to say, Damascus and its southern hinterland, providing the link with Lebanon and the Mediterranean coastline. That is similar to the strategy the French adopted when faced with a series of anti-colonial rebellions during their occupation of Syria. With “useful Syria” under control, the Russo–Iranian axis could go after other gains, and why not in Lebanon?
At the other end of the spectrum, the Arab bloc that wants Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad out may come to the conclusion that crushing the despot’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon is a crucial step towards liberating Syria.
Signs that Tehran is not shy of throwing its weight around in and around Lebanon are everywhere. Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei has pointedly rebuffed Obama’s attempts at drawing Iran into talks over Syria and has ordered President Hassan Rouhani to limit talks with the P5+1 group of major powers to the nuclear issue.
Maj. Gen. Hassan Firuzabadi, the chief of staff of the Islamic Republic’s armed forces, has repeatedly described Syria and Lebanon as “part of our glacis.”
“We need those places so that we could fight our enemies far from our own borders,” Firuzabadi told a meeting of the military in Tehran last February.
Ayatollah Mahmoud Nabawian, a member of the Security Commission of the Islamic Majlis (Iran’s ersatz parliament), goes even further. “Some say we are making sacrifices for Syria,” he said in a speech at the Jihad Conference in Tehran last February. “The truth is that it is Syria that makes sacrifices for us.”
Claiming that Iran was on the verge of a “great victory” in Syria, he said: “We brought 150,000 Syrians to Iran and gave them military training. We also sent 50,000 fighters from the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah to fight alongside them. We also gave Hezbollah 80,000 missiles with which to hit Israel, and that ensured America’s defeat.”
The expected “victory” in Syria is only a prelude to “the greatest victory” (fath al-mobin) that awaits the Islamic Republic, according to the Quds Corps’ deputy commander, Gen. Ismail Qaanai. “We cannot stop at Syria,” Qaanai said last month. “Our aim is and has always been to lead the whole Muslim world.” He added: “It is obvious that no other power has the capabilities needed to assume leadership in the Muslim world.” Part of the cockiness in Tehran is due to the belief that the US has knocked itself out of the regional, if not international, equation. “The Americans know that we could hit them hard everywhere, including inside their own territory,” says Islamic Revolutionary Guards Commander Mohammad-Ali Jaafari.
However, some senior mullahs have injected an openly sectarian tone into Tehran’s expression of hubris. For example, Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, godfather of the radical faction in Tehran, claims that Iran ought to gain control of Syria to “efface the damage done to Islam by the Umayyads.”
Last January, in a bitter attack on Othman, the third Caliph of Islam, Mesbah-Yazdi claimed that Muawyyah, a relative of Othman, tricked Ali Ibn-Abi Talib, the fourth caliph, and managed to set up a dynasty that “falsified” Islam. Now Iran’s task was to restore “true Islam” everywhere.
“Syria and Lebanon are the forward positions of our revolutionary Islam,” Mesbah-Yazdi said.” Whatever we spend there must not be regarded as an ordinary military budget, as is the case with American and Russian military expenditure, for we are spending on defense of true religion.”
As things stand today, Lebanon seems vulnerable. Its army is not yet in a position to ensure law and order is maintained throughout the country. Thanks to Iranian investment, the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah often has more modern weapons and in greater quantities than the Lebanese army.
Worse still, Hezbollah leaders appear to have no independent will of their own and are kept on a tight leash by Tehran. The party’s official organs no longer operate, as strategy is set in Tehran and executed by Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who is treated by Iranian media as a functionary of the Islamic Republic. Covering Nasrallah’s latest visit to Tehran, official news agency IRNA reported that the Lebanese politician had been “granted an audience by the Supreme Guide” to “give a report of the situation in Lebanon and receive the necessary instructions.”
A power grab in Lebanon might enable Khamenei to divert attention from the concessions he is forced to give on the nuclear issue to prevent economic meltdown in Iran. And, if that happens, it could be bad news for Lebanon.