Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now safely back in Teheran, his triumphal tour of Lebanon concluded. The internal Lebanese political crisis which underlay his visit, however, is far from over and has almost certainly not yet reached its height. His visit served to cast a sharp light on the Lebanese reality. It revealed a country whose people may be divided between supporters of the Iran-led regional axis, and hostages of that axis.
This is a grave situation. The fact that Iran and its proxies have been able to reach this ascendant position in Lebanon is a testimony to the failure of Western regional policy over the last half decade.
Ahmadinejad’s visit was a justified triumphal procession by a representative of a regime which, despite economic and internal difficulties, is succeeding in its goal of advancing Iranian power and political influence across the region.
The Iranians have found openly authoritarian structures in the Arab world hard to penetrate. In Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, their efforts at internal subversion have largely run aground. However, in weaker states in which something like an electoral system exists, Teheran has developed a very Middle Eastern mixture of patronage, paramilitary muscle and exploitation of genuine grievances which is delivering the regime a string of successes.
This “recipe” has enabled the Iranians to split the Palestinian national movement and make their half of it (the Hamas enclave in Gaza) the most dynamic element. It has enabled Teheran to emerge as the kingmaker in Iraq, via their support for the movement of Moqtada al-Sadr. And last and very much not least, this political-paramilitary “system” has brought the Islamic Republic the effective ownership of Lebanon, through the long development of its proxy, Hizbullah.
Ahmadinejad’s visit was an acknowledgment of Iranian success and Western failure. It had the virtue, nevertheless, of helping to dispel some of the more obvious falsehoods asserted by supporters and fellow travelers of the Iran-led bloc, and of presenting this troubling reality in clearer focus before the world.
Supporters and fellow travelers of Hizbullah have long sought to downplay the movement’s status as an Iranian franchise. Hizbullah leaders seek to present themselves as Lebanese patriots, leading a national “resistance” to Israel. Their Western admirers in Beirut and elsewhere eagerly repeat these claims. The assertion of Hizbullah’s independent Lebanese nature looked rather more threadbare after the Ahmadinejad visit.
The Iranian president addressed a cheering crowd of 14,000 overwhelmingly Shi’ite Lebanese in Bint Jbeil, who reacted to the mention of the name of Prime Minister Saad Hariri with loud boos. He made his promised trip to the border area and delivered a ranting call for Israel’s destruction from it. All around were Iranian flags and slogans praising Teheran’s system of government.
This was no mere visit by a foreign politician to a neighboring state. The rebuilt infrastructure – military and civil – south of the Litani River is entirely the product of Iranian largesse. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who preferred discretion to valor and greeted the guest from his place of hiding, looked for all the world like what he is – a client. Ahmadinejad was the patron, inspecting his investment.
Western leaders have not been slow to notice this, nor to respond.
Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman reportedly warned Lebanese officials that the US would “not tolerate” an Iranian foothold on the Mediterranean.
One of the immediate practical effects of Ahmadinejad’s visit has been to lend added weight to voices in the US Congress calling for an end to military aid to Lebanon. Some $100 million in military and security aid has been frozen by the US Congress since August of this year.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a former House Subcommittee chairwoman, this week said that “Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon” and its illustration of the “increasing dominance of Iran and its allies,” raised the question of whether such aid should continue.
Even UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his 12th semi-annual report on the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, noted that Hizbullah is now stronger than the Lebanese Armed Forces. He said that Hizbullah’s military ascendancy “creates an atmosphere of intimidation and poses a key challenge to the safety of Lebanese civilians and to the government.”
FURTHER INDICATIONS of just who is in control in Lebanon appear to be imminent. Tensions are currently high throughout the country in the buildup to the possible issuing of indictments against Hizbullah members suspected of involvement in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Members of the Hizbullah-dominated March 8 movement are calling for the tribunal to be abolished. The movement has made clear that it has no intention of handing over suspects. There is a wider fear that the issuing of indictments could trigger a wider, violent reaction from Hizbullah.
There is also widespread speculation as to what exactly will be the response of the official government of Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri to a Hizbullah ultimatum for the abolition of the tribunal. Hariri, after all, has already undergone the humiliation of being forced to declare his sincere friendship to the Assad regime in Syria – which almost certainly had a hand in the killing of his father.
How much more will he be willing to swallow is the question now being asked. It is testimony to the current balance of power in the country that the only option available to Hariri other than further capitulation is probably resignation. Saudi-Syrian efforts are under way to try to find a way out of the crisis.
But whatever the outcome of the latest set-to over the Hariri tribunal, the balance of forces in Lebanon was made plain in the starkest terms during Ahmadinejad’s visit.
Western neglect and the evident inability to find the will and determination to stand firm against Iranian sponsoring and activating of political-military proxies has led to the establishing of an Iranian enclave on the Mediterranean. Ahmadinejad may be reviled and ridiculed at home. The Iranian economy may be reeling under the impact of sanctions. But when it comes to playing power games in the less stable parts of the region, it is increasingly obvious that the Iranian recipe for militarized politics is paying dividends.