What is striking about the current crisis in Lebanon is that the efforts to resolve it are being made by countries in the region, with hardly any initiatives on the part of Western countries, enabling Iran and Syria to continue to stir the pot unmolested.
Iran no longer hesitates to state publicly that its forward defense line now passes through "Lebanon and Palestine." In practice, the Lebanese-Israeli border is in fact Israel's border with Iran.
For Iran, Hizbullah serves as a live and successful model for revolutions, one which is reflected in other organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian terror organizations, as well as extreme Shiite organizations in Iraq trained by Lebanese Hizbullah.
Hizbullah is nourished by the growing strength and power of Iran and draws upon its successes. Both parties recognize that the fall of one also signifies the demise of the other.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the Hariri murder, which is about to publicize its findings, may offer an opportunity for the West to reverse the trend and take the initiative to reduce Iranian influence in Lebanon, and weaken the power of Tehran to damage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Iran Offers to Solve the Crisis It Caused
Immediately after the political crisis in Lebanon erupted when Saad Hariri's government collapsed following the resignation of the Hizbullah ministers, Iran's leadership and media hastened to blame the United States, the "Zionist entity" (Israel), and the West for the failure of the Syrian-Saudi mediation initiative, in particular, and for "sabotaging" efforts to find a solution to the Lebanese political crisis, in general.
Western Countries Display Little Interest in Lebanon
Given the continued crisis, what is striking is that the efforts to resolve it are being made by countries in the region, with hardly any initiatives on the part of Western countries, which for some time now have hardly displayed any involvement in what transpires within the internal Lebanese arena, while Iran and Syria continue to stir the pot unmolested.
At the same time, the Iranian-Turkish rapprochement has also found expression in the Lebanese issue during recent months. Iranian President Ahmadinejad had a telephone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan regarding the implications of the Lebanese crisis and emphasized that countries in the region were the ones who had to find a solution to the crisis in which Lebanon had become enmeshed by fully cooperating among themselves and eschewing foreign intervention.1
According to reports in the Turkish media, the Turkish prime minister also had a telephone conversation with King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and the Emir of Qatar, and said that following the contacts that he had with Lebanese leaders (a meeting in Turkey with Saad Hariri), Saudi Arabia and Qatar, a multilateral meeting was possible with representatives from the United States, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt participating.
Up to now Iran has refrained from specifying the names of Western countries that could constitute part of a mediation initiative and an international effort for solving the crisis in Lebanon, and possibly differences exist on this issue between Iran, Turkey, and Syria. Iran has no interest in awarding Turkey credit in the Arab world as the one who contained the crisis. Iran has still not managed to recover from the Turkish success in the Gaza flotilla incident and the reverberations that it aroused in the Arab world, and Iran has no wish to provide Turkey with a toehold in Lebanon at its expense.
Iran Blames the U.S. and Israel
The Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, has held separate meetings with various powerbrokers in the Lebanese arena (Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Beri, head of the General Union of Agriculture, Industry, and Trade Chambers Adnan Qassar, and army commander General Jean Kahwaji) to discuss the political crisis. Following his meetings, the Iranian ambassador declared: "The U.S. and the Zionist regime (Israel) caused the Saudi-Syria initiative to fail in order to create an atmosphere of disunity. At this stage, these are the Lebanese that can transcend this critical situation through their wisdom."2 Druze leader Walid Jumblatt's recent announcement that he will support Hizbullah ahead of internal Lebanese discussions to pick a new prime minister has increased the chances of the formation of a Hizbullah-led, Iranian-influenced coalition, which would constitute a major victory for Iranian interests in Lebanon.3
Other Iranian spokesmen accused "foreign elements" of creating the crisis in Lebanon. Acting Iranian Foreign Minister and the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi declared immediately after the outbreak of the crisis that "the involvement of malevolent foreign elements who do not really care about the Lebanese issue" was the backdrop to the failure of the Saudi-Syrian mediation initiative in Lebanon, and he called upon the parties in Lebanon to display vigilance and preserve unity. He added that this initiative had won the backing of various countries in the region and could bring about a solution to the crisis.4
Mohammad Reza Raouf-Sheibani,Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Middle Eastern Affairs, also claimed that the United States and Israel "sabotaged" the initiative and efforts to bring about a solution to the political crisis in Lebanon, and therefore one should blame them for everything related to the collapse of the Lebanese government. The Iranian press declared that "the United States and Israel are trying to sow discord between the various groups in Lebanon in order to goad Lebanese society into civil war."5
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehman-Parast said that the various groups and organizations operating in Lebanon could reach agreement among themselves: "Since different Lebanese groups enjoy great political wisdom and maturity, they can find a proper way to arrange for the future status of their country through consultations within a legal framework."6 He added, "What has come about in Lebanon is completely natural and there is no concern. Groups and parties in the country are highly politically mature....A complete political process accompanied by democracy is emerging in Lebanon and we hope that vigilance, tact, and national unity will not allow interventionists to play a destructive role."7
Part of a Broader Iranian Strategy
The long-term strategy adopted by Iran towards the Lebanese arena, with Hizbullah playing a decisive role in its implementation, constitutes part of a broader strategy that allows Iran to position itself as a rising regional and international power and in practice as the "just, Islamic alternative" to American hegemony.
In this context, the provocative visit by Ahamadinejad to Lebanon in October 2010 constituted an important milestone, and the well-planned crisis that Tehran and Hizbullah have executed is but another stage in the "Iranian-Shiite Conquest of Lebanon." The Iranian success in Lebanon stems, inter alia, from the U.S. failure in the Lebanese arena and its continued neglect (and that of the West, in general), to the benefit of Hizbullah and Iran, that has intensified during the stewardship of President Obama.
While during the administration of President George W. Bush, Lebanon became the major hope for Arab democracy (after Iraq), the country was almost totally neglected during the Obama era. The problematic Syrian regime was also partially whitewashed (a short while before the crisis in Lebanon erupted, the new U.S. ambassador to Damascus arrived in the Syrian capital). Syria and Iran could again feel at home in Lebanon after a brief "cooling-off" period that followed the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, while they flagrantly ignored UN Security Council Resolution 1701 at the end of the Second Lebanon War.
President Bush's message that democratization constituted a balm against terror, which rattled the cage of the status quo in the Arab world, reached Lebanon and "threatened" the Iranian Islamic model that Hizbullah was to implement in stages. In practice, Lebanon became the arena for a clash between two overarching concepts engaged in a struggle to achieve the greatest influence in Lebanon, in particular, and the entire Middle East, in general: Western democratization (represented by the former American and French support for the government of Fouad Siniora) and revolutionary Iranian Islam (Hizbullah and the opposition to the pro-Western government in Lebanon).
The West's weak response and lack of long-term commitment failed to neutralize or contain the growing Iranian influence in Lebanon via Hizbullah, and those Lebanese who had sensed a fluttering of democracy became increasingly disenchanted.
Lebanon Transformed into a Forward Iranian Outpost
Iran exploited the hesitations and changes in Western policy toward Syria and Lebanon, transforming Lebanon into a forward Iranian outpost with tens of thousands of rockets and missiles of various ranges aimed at Israel. Iran no longer hesitates to state publicly that its forward defense line now passes through "Lebanon and Palestine." In practice, the Lebanese-Israeli border is in fact Israel's border with Iran. Hizbullah has become an Iranian organization in every sense of the word and the organization's secretary-general serves as the Iranian leader's representative in Lebanon. Lebanon, which is used to suffering and civil wars, has become a battleground for Iran and Syria and an efficient tool for promoting their national security interests.
In this context, one should recall the tremendous importance that Iran attributes to Hizbullah's confrontation with Israel during the Second Lebanon War and its results. While the IDF withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000 marked for Iran the first victory of the Islamic Revolution outside of Iran, the Second Lebanon War and the Gaza operation (Operation "Cast Lead") which followed in 2009 have become epic and celestial events.
For Iran, Hizbullah serves as a live and successful model for revolutions, one which is reflected in other organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other Palestinian terror organizations, as well as extreme Shiite organizations in Iraq trained by Lebanese Hizbullah. Hizbullah is nourished by the growing strength and power of Iran and draws upon its successes. Both parties recognize that the fall of one also signifies the demise of the other.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon investigating the Hariri murder is about to publicize its findings that cast blame on Hizbullah and, according to newspaper reports, also on Iran for having ordered the killing. This offers an opportunity for the West to reverse the trend and take the initiative to reduce Iranian influence in Lebanon, and weaken the power of Tehran to damage additional processes in the region such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Will the West and, first and foremost, the United States take advantage of the report incriminating those responsible for the murder of Hariri, and use it as a lever to reverse the trend and efficiently contend with the growing shadow of Iran over the Middle East? One hopes they will understand that dealing with "Iran first" is a precondition for handling regional crises, though the plausible assumption is that they will not do so.
Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, Middle East analyst and consultant at the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, is a former Head of the Iran and Persian Gulf States desk in IDF Military Intelligence.
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