FPI Bulletin: Iran Consolidates Power in Lebanon

November 8, 2016

Upon Michel Aoun’s election as president of Lebanon last week, the Obama administration offered the customary congratulations. “This is a moment of opportunity,” the State Department declared, “as Lebanon emerges from years of political impasse, to restore government functions and build a more stable and prosperous future for all Lebanese citizens.” In reality, this is Iran’s “moment of opportunity” to exploit the rise of a longtime patron to consolidate its influence in Lebanon.

Aoun’s victory, which caps a 29-month presidential vacancy, marks the triumph of Hezbollah’s decades-long effort to become the dominant force in Lebanese politics and society. Since its founding in the early 1980s, the Iran-backed terrorist organization has sought to create a new Islamic order that replicates Tehran’s radical vision of the Islamic Revolution. In 1985, the group outlined its worldview in an open letter that pledges allegiance to Iran’s supreme leader and describes the United States and Israel as irreconcilable enemies.

According to the letter, however, Hezbollah constitutes not a political party, but an umma — an Islamic community “linked to the Muslims of the whole world by the solid doctrinal and religious connection of Islam.” This perspective accounted for Hezbollah’s initial refusal to compete for representation in the Lebanese government, a secular body it regarded as the antithesis of Islamic values. The organization eventually reversed this decision in 1992, when it concluded that political power would better advance its long-term objectives.

Still, Hezbollah never viewed political power as an end in itself. “From the start,” writes Naim Qassem, Hezbollah’s deputy secretary-general, the group “did not consider representation in Parliament as constituting the Party’s ultimate dream… This assembly is but one force of influence, not the only one.” Rather, Qassem argued, Hezbollah’s fundamental mission lay in “the presentation of an Islamic model of political work that is in line with the Shari‘a, serving the people, properly representing them and working in their interests.”

Put differently, Hezbollah aspired to a cultural and religious revolution that would not only guide but also transcend the existing political order. Thus, the story of Hezbollah’s ascendance over the past three decades has primarily unfolded not in the halls of parliament but in the streets of Lebanon — in the group’s development of a vast network of social services and security structures. From schools, hospitals, and media outlets to a full-fledged army now fighting in Syria and an arsenal of 150,000 rockets aimed at Israel, Hezbollah’s infrastructure amounts to a “state within a state,” offering a potent challenge to a fractious government in Beirut that has struggled to reconcile its Sunni, Shiite, and Christian constituencies.

In this context, Aoun’s electoral win represents the culmination of Hezbollah’s campaign to recreate Lebanon in its own image. Over the years, as Hezbollah’s role in society has expanded, its influence in Beirut has gradually intensified. In the latest presidential contest, the organization blocked a parliamentary vote 45 times, over more than two years, not only to ensure the success of its desired candidate, but also as a ploy to discredit the Lebanese government as a whole, thereby enabling it to present itself as Lebanon’s most relevant and powerful political actor. Aoun’s eventual victory effectively formalizes Hezbollah’s de facto dominance of the country’s political, social and cultural institutions.

Not coincidentally, the vote also comes as Iran’s regional influence and aggression have dramatically increased in the wake of the July 2015 nuclear agreement. Tehran and Hezbollah, working in tandem, have played a key role in ensuring the survival of the Assad regime, which facilitates Iran’s ability to ship matériel to Syria and Lebanon. As president, Aoun will almost certainly continue to support Tehran’s efforts to strengthen its proxies throughout the Middle East, thereby prolonging Syria’s civil war, endangering Israel and the Sunni Arab states, and further destabilizing the region.

Aoun has not concealed his intentions. In his inaugural address last week, the Maronite Christian and former army commander hailed the role of Hezbollah in Lebanese society, noting that its growth stems from “the support granted by the Lebanese people, the state, and the Lebanese army” — an implicit rebuke of March 2016 decisions by the Arab League and Gulf Cooperation Council to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. In a further signal of Aoun’s goals, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Syrian Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam yesterday became the first foreign officials to meet the new Lebanese president.

The Iranian regime’s enthusiastic response to Aoun’s election offers a far better indicator of Lebanon’s future direction than the Obama administration’s statement hailing a new “moment of opportunity.” Ali Akbar Velayati, an advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, called the vote a “victory” for Hezbollah. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani proclaimed that Beirut’s “resistance front will be strengthened” against “the Zionist regime,” and that Tehran is “ready to expand relations with the friendly country of Lebanon.” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared that his nation “will always stand with Lebanon.”

And so it will — unless and until Washington adopts a new strategy aimed at countering Iranian expansionism. The next U.S. president must reverse the Obama administration’s policy of accommodating Tehran’s regional ambitions, and instead make clear that the Islamist regime will face meaningful consequences for its misbehavior. America’s new leader must also work to ensure the defeat of the Assad regime and the rise of moderate leaders in its place. In other words, President Obama’s successor must seize this moment of opportunity to chart a new course aimed at building a stable and prosperous future for the victims of Iran’s aggression.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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