While the dust is beginning to settle over last week’s armed thuggery by Hizbullah against the Sunni community in West Beirut and the Druze in Chouf, several Middle East analysts have come to the conclusion that Iran was behind the violence in Lebanon:
Increasingly, prominent Middle East analysts and observers are suggesting that the past week’s events in Lebanon were part of an attempt by Iran to impose a new order in the Middle East through Hezbollah’s weapons. Raghida Durgham, al-Hayat daily’s reporter in Washington, wrote on May 16 that the party’s arms offer a doorway for Iran to enter Lebanon, one that does not require sending a foreign army like the Syrian troops that entered Lebanon after the civil war. “Iran today is like a border to Lebanon because of Hezbollah’s arms and Iran’s continuous support,” she wrote. “Syria is the important link between Iran and Hezbollah’s arms. However, the strategic decision is made by the Iranians.”
Durgham also quoted a high ranking Arab source who stressed that the best explanation for Lebanon’s recent crisis is that Iran feared a US military attack this summer, which it sought to preempt by mobilizing Hezbollah.
If this is true – and I have doubts about just how much the Iranians really “control” Hizbullah – it represents a radical shift in Iranian strategic thinking. Previously, Iran has been perfectly content to basically sit back and watch the United States get bogged down in Iraq while we were slowly losing influence among the Sunni states in the region. Their assistance given to the Iraqi terrorists, militias, and insurgents has not altered the military situation in Iraq. It wasn’t designed to. It was designed to keep the US pinned down while they plowed ahead with their enrichment program.
Now that they are on the cusp of being able to enrich uranium on an industrial scale, they have apparently decided to put the hammer down and go for broke in Lebanon.
Former 12-year Hezbollah member and fighter Rami Olleik, now an instructor of Agriculture at the American University of Beirut, also suggested, based on his own experience with the party, that the past week’s confrontations are part of the war between the US and Iran. “The difference is that March 14 did not merge organically with the US project as much as Hezbollah did with the Iranian project. Hezbollah and Iran’s projects are inseparable,” he added.
Likewise, Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh also indicated to NOW Lebanon that the Lebanese opposition’s military operations last week were obviously an Iranian decision. “However, moving the front to Lebanon was a trial that has turned against Iran, as it opened the issue of [Hezbollah’s] arms,” Hamadeh said.
According to Hamadeh, the Arabs, led by the Arab League, have taken back the political initiative and decided to stop the military takeover of Lebanon. “The battle in the Chouf made [the opposition] stop and think, but even in Beirut, they couldn’t have stayed longer,” he stressed.
Appearing on my radio show last Tuesday, Professor Barry Rubin suggested that one way to counter this Iranian thrust was to have the United States become much more active in its support of the government. To date, the US (and France) have remained largely in the background, letting Saudi King Abdullah carry most of the diplomatic load. But should the US then try to “organically merge” with the pro-democracy Sunnis in Lebanon to match the Iranians and Hizbullah?
I can give 5 good reasons off the top of my head why such a move would be incredibly dangerous – backlash against the government, being asked to arm and train Sunni militias, risking our reputation in a civil war situation, the high cost of failure, and the potential of being dragged into another war.
In fact, I can give only one good reason we should get much closer to the March 14th government; Iran is there and so far, we have not engaged. We are giving Iran a cheap victory because of our reluctance to support the government. If Iran does indeed want to make Lebanon a proxy site for a war, we refuse them at our own peril. A Lebanese government dominated by Hizbullah under Iranian control and buttressed by Syrian muscle would at the very least scramble Middle East politics but good.
With the government revoking its two controversial decisions, Hezbollah’s quasi-state now appears stronger than the Lebanese government.
“Negotiations took place under pressure and threats of escalating the military operations. The government from now on will be under the command of Hezbollah, and it would never dare to make any decision that is not in Hezbollah’s interests, otherwise they will occupy the country,” Asaad stressed. He added that dialogue should now focus on one issue: either the arms go, or Lebanon goes.
If that is the choice, it will almost certainly be Lebanon that “goes.” Despite the Arab League’s efforts at mediation in Doha this weekend – and the question of Hizbullah’s arms will be discussed – not much will be accomplished if only because Hizbullah is now seen as an occupying force in its own country. They promised not to use their guns on the Lebanese, that they were only to be aimed at Israel. Now that the great lie has been exposed, they have become isolated. No longer a state within a state, they are simply a rogue militia that seeks to impose its will by the barrel of a gun.
And standing behind the curtain urging them on is Tehran who understands that bringing down the democratically elected government backed by the US and the west would deal a blow to our entire position in the region. If other players see the US fail to engage and pick up the Iranian gauntlet, they will draw the necessary conclusions and make their own peace with the Iranians as best they can.
While Sunni leader Said Hariri swears that he will not try and recruit a Sunni militia to fight Hizbullah thus avoiding what would be a catastrophic civil war, his followers may have other ideas. As Druze leader Walid Jumblatt found out to his chagrin last week, people being attacked do not always follow orders. Even after ordering the Druze to lay down their arms and allow the army to take up their positions, the fighters refused and ended up dealing Hizbullah a stinging defeat. Thus, it is becoming apparent that the political leaders have a tenuous hold over their followers and that the next round of violence may spin out of control to everyone’s detriment.
This isn’t the endgame in Lebanon. But unless the US decides to throw its weight behind the moderate, pro-democracy Sunnis in Lebanon soon, it could all be over before we even realize it started.