Analysis: Lebanon: a province of Iran?

The sudden and dramatic resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister on Saturday graphically demonstrated the grip Iran – through its proxy Hezbollah – holds over the country.

Saad Hariri, the son of assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri, quit with an angry statement which fired a series of broadsides against the Islamic republic and its terror army. “In recent years, Hezbollah has used the power of its weapons to impose a fait accompli,” he said, while suggesting that Iran “continues to abuse Lebanon”.

“The evil that Iran spreads in the region will backfire on it,” Hariri argued. “Iran has a grip on the fate of the region’s countries… Hezbollah is Iran’s arm not just in Lebanon but in other Arab countries too.”

Speaking from Saudi Arabia, Hariri also indicated that he believed his own life was in danger: “I am aware of what is being plotted to target my life.” It has since been reported that a plot to assassinate the prime minister had been uncovered days before his resignation. The fate of his father – whose murder in February 2005 has been widely blamed on Iran, Syria and Hezbollah – no doubt weighed heavily on Hariri’s mind. “We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assassination of martyr Rafik Hariri,” his son alleged.

Lebanon has long been riven by divisions between its Sunni community, which looks to Saudi Arabia, and Shiites loyal to Iran. These strains have been exacerbated by the Syrian civil war and the related growing regional tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Hariri has led a national unity government – which includes Hezbollah – since his appointment as prime minister late last year. His appointment, in turn, followed the end of a two-year hiatus when Lebanon was without a president. President Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian and ally of Hezbollah, was elected in October 2016. That followed an apparent deal which saw Hariri endorse Auon in return for the president subsequently appointing him as prime minister. It was Hariri’s second stint as prime minister, having previously served in the job from 2009-11. On that occasion, he was forced from office when Hezbollah and its allies pulled their ministers out of the government.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah called Hariri’s resignation “very destabilizing”. “We, Hezbollah, did not wish for this,” he said in a televised address on Sunday.

The only Lebanese political party to hold on to its military arsenal following the end of the country’s 15-year civil war in 1990, Hezbollah was founded in the 1980s with Iranian backing to fight the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. It subsequently provoked conflicts with Israel in 1993, 1996 and 2006. The bloodiest – the 2006 Second Lebanon War – began after Hezbollah ambushed Israeli soldiers on the country’s northern border, killing three and abducting two more. The war led to large numbers of civilian casualties in Israel and Lebanon and the evacuation of several hundred thousand people in both countries. In defiance of UN Resolution 1701, which brought the 2006 war to a close and which barred arms transfers to it, Hezbollah has spent the last decade restocking its arsenal and rebuilding its forces in Lebanon. It has trebled the size of its fighter force from 17,000 to 45,000 and is now estimated to have 120,000-140,000 rockets and missiles. Its military might dwarfs that of the Lebanese army, with which it coordinates and cooperates.

Hariri currently remains in Saudi Arabia, where he was born and where his family have remained throughout his 11-month premiership. Hezbollah accused Saudi Arabia of forcing Hariri to quit and, indeed, the move has been seen by some observers as part of the Sunni kingdom’s effort to isolate the terror group and curb Iran’s regional expansion.

Hezbollah has become Tehran’s indispensable partner in its expansionist efforts. Not only has it deployed thousands of fighters to Syria – where, at the behest of the Assad regime, it has helped to eliminate the non-extremist opposition to it and thus increased the ranks of Sunni jihadis and stir sectarian hatreds – it has also entangled itself in Iran’s support for Shia militias in Iran and the brutal war in Yemen.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister accused Hezbollah, with Iranian support, of launching a missile at the weekend that targeted Riyadh. The Saudis said the missile, launched from a Houthi-controlled area of Yemen, “could be considered an act of war”.

Experts suggest that Hezbollah’s calls for “patience and calm” reflect concern that it is “now more exposed, without a coalition government to give its domestic and regional activities the stamp of legitimacy, and without a substantial Sunni partner to replace Hariri”. While the prime minister had attempted to accommodate Hezbollah’s ever-growing power – tolerating, for instance, its involvement in Syria and passing a new proportional electoral law which many believe would guarantee it victory in next May’s parliamentary elections – he has received little by way of concessions from the terror group in return.

Constitutionally, Aoun is obliged to appoint a Sunni to replace Hariri. The country’s power-sharing system requires a Maronite Christian to hold the presidency and a Shiite the post of speaker of the parliament, and the deputy prime minister and the deputy speaker of parliament must be Eastern Orthodox. However, the two leading potential replacements – former prime ministers Najib Mikati and Fouad Siniora – have both ruled themselves out.

This leaves Aoun and Hezbollah with a dilemma. The US has recently imposed new sanctions on the terror group, which many fear will hit the economy of Lebanon. Thus, as the New York Times suggested: “If Mr. Aoun and the Parliament decide on an openly pro-Hezbollah figure, the country could face new isolation. It is unlikely they could settle on an openly anti-Hezbollah political figure.”

In many regards, Hariri resignation has simply exposed a reality which his presence in the premiership partially obscured: that Lebanon, in the words of one commentator, is now “an Iranian province run by Hezbollah”.