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After the Beirut blast: Hezbollah and Iran walk a tricky line

In the wake of the August 4 mega-explosion that leveled parts of Beirut, there is one silver lining on an otherwise dark cloud: the possibility that the blast might catalyze a sustained effort to refashion Lebanon’s political system. But there are two key obstacles to such change. The most elemental is the conviction of the ruling class that its political survival depends on sustaining the tattered power-sharing system. The second hurdle is the regional environment, wherein the goal of Iran, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia is to ensure that Lebanon’s fragile balance of power does not shift in ways that could undermine their geostrategic interests. The challenge facing all of these countries—and their Lebanese allies—is how to secure their long-standing relationships in the face of grassroots demands in Lebanon for restructuring the country’s politics.

The Beirut port blast has accentuated this vexing dilemma. Still, it remains to be seen how the key domestic and regional players will react as the international community responds to the humanitarian disaster facing Lebanon. Of all these protagonists, Iran has the most to lose. After all, its geostrategic interests depend on protecting its relationship with Hezbollah. In the face of growing internal and international pressures, Hezbollah and Tehran must tackle a basic challenge: how to shield their vital relationship while avoiding steps that might further erode Hezbollah’s domestic credibility. The way they walk this tricky path will play no small role in the unfolding drama to shape Lebanon’s confessional order.

The economic logic of political survival in Lebanon’s confessional system

At least two related domestic factors have helped to sustain that system. The first is the fear of all the key leaders that any bid to rework it would provoke another civil war. The second is the tight meshing of the economy with confessionalism. Power sharing in Lebanon pivots around a protracted cease-fire between 18 confessional groups. The latter share power because each sect assumes that a truly democratic system will give its rivals the means and votes to impose their domestic and foreign agendas on the country. Beyond fear, what glues the system together is the capacity of all leaders to use public and private funds to purchase the political support of their followers. Power flows through a vast, deeply corrupt patronage system that is partly subsidized by foreign governments. The costs that come with this system have been partly responsible for Lebanon’s ballooning public debt, which stands at over $90 billion.

Power flows through a vast, deeply corrupt patronage system that is partly subsidized by foreign governments. The costs that come with this system have been partly responsible for Lebanon’s ballooning public debt.

Lebanon’s port has played a role in this system. Because it is at the center of the import-export economy that provides Lebanon with 80 percent of its goods, control over the port has been divided between different factions. The harbor’s fiefdoms allow each group to secure payoffs before goods go into the country, providing a lucrative channel of patronage and corruption. Thus it is hardly surprising that while requests were made for the government to investigate the tons of ammonium nitrate stored in the port since 2014, no action was taken. Doing so could have exposed all the factions to scrutiny from a government that was partly complicit in the problem in the first place.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese have taken to the streets to protest the massive corruption and foreign backed Ponzi schemes that have fueled this system. Yet no one knows how to replace “Grand Theft Lebanon” with a system that will rescue the country from financial ruin while also preventing those groups that control patronage from aiming their guns at the thousands of Lebanese who have bravely defied the ruling elite in their quest for real democracy.

Dangerous foreign liaisons

The capacity of Lebanon’s confessional leaders to sustain the patronage system is closely tied to and constrained by their financial, political, and geostrategic links to outside players. Such liaisons can prove dangerous and even fatal. Late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s efforts to advance his political and business relationships with Saudi Arabia and other states (including France) helped to set the stage for the February 2005 bombing that ended his life—and 21 others. His son Saad’s very reasonable assumption that agents from Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah organized the assassination may have guided his bid to depart from his father’s risky regional diplomacy by acquiescing to Hezbollah’s push for a commanding position in government. Hariri’s policy provoked retaliation from Saudi Arabia and its new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), who effectively took Saad Hariri hostage in November 2017. But MbS’s wager that this bold move would deter Iran and Hezbollah only strengthened the latter’s resolve to consolidate the movement’s political position, a project that has depended on an uneasy alliance between Hezbollah and Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun.

The capacity of Lebanon’s confessional leaders to sustain the patronage system is closely tied to and constrained by their financial, political, and geostrategic links to outside players.

Hezbollah has used the leverage afforded to it by this alliance to protect its special relationship with Iran. This partnership extends far beyond common military and geostrategic spheres. With Iran’s backing (estimated at $700 million yearly), in March 2019 Hezbollah’s control of key economic and governmental entities, such as the Ministry of Health, has given the movement a vital source of patronage. Its economic influence has been further strengthened by smuggling operations across the Syrian Lebanese border, by funds generated through a network of Hezbollah-linked businesses and, as recent reports show, by profits gained through global drug sales and related money laundering operations. No Lebanese faction can match these enormous resources, a fact that has earned Hezbollah both respect and contempt. Indeed, Hezbollah’s leaders have long grappled with the risky business of shielding its financial, political, and strategic ties with Tehran and Damascus while defending its oft-contested assertion that the movement is a national player that is committed to Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Hezbollah defends its turf

If the August blast has complicated Hezbollah’s ability to walk this fine line, it suffered several setbacks well before the explosion. One hurdle came in late 2019 and early 2020 when it tried to clamp down on public protests, some of which included members of the Shia community. Another was in May 2019 when, in the wake of the sanctions imposed by the Trump Administration, Hezbollah reduced funding for its militia of 20,000 to 30,000 regular troops, its huge cadre of civilian employees, and its TV station, Al-Manar. Roughly a year later, the White House imposed a new set of sanctions. While targeting the Assad regime, reports suggest that the secondary effects of the June 2020 sanctions associated with the Caesar Act undermined Hezbollah’s practice of using Lebanon’s central bank to secure, at subsidized prices, basic commodities such as fuel, which it had then  smuggled to its ally in Damascus. One month later, the Trump Administration put two Hezbollah members of parliament on its sanctions blacklist, bringing the total number of Hezbollah leaders to 50.

While it is hard to assess the precise impact of these sanctions on Lebanon’s economy, Hassan Nasrallah’s assertion that US sanctions were “starving both Syria and Lebanon” was not totally off base. Indeed, the sanctions fanned the flames that have consumed the ailing banking sector and the collapsing currency. But to the sure consternation of Hezbollah’s leaders, US sanctions also fed the conviction of a growing number of political activists—including some from the Shia community—that Hezbollah was largely responsible for Lebanon’s suffering.

To the sure consternation of Hezbollah’s leaders, US sanctions also fed the conviction of a growing number of political activists—including some from the Shia community—that Hezbollah was largely responsible for Lebanon’s suffering.

Given such perceptions, it is hardly surprising that Hezbollah’s leaders strenuously denied any responsibility for the August 4 explosion. Nasrallah was emphatic: “I categorically deny the claim that Hezbollah has arms cache, ammunition or anything else in the port.” Warning his rivals that they would “not achieve any result” by blaming Hezbollah, he added an implicit threat: Hezbollah, he declared, is “greater and more noble than to be taken down by some liars, inciters, and [those] who are trying to push for civil war.” At the same time, he tossed critics a bone by calling for a full investigation and denouncing the corruption, nepotism that led to it. But these clashing messages only further enraged protesters, some of whom carried effigies of Nasrallah with a noose around his neck as they stormed government ministries.

Despite (or perhaps because of) this fury, Nasrallah has not uttered one word that would suggest the he might support the protesters’ demands for comprehensive political change. To do so would not only align him with demands that could undermine the very political system upon which Hezbollah’s power rests, but it would also create deep consternation within the movement’s leadership as well as within Hezbollah’s wider social base. For while its followers have called for reforms to fight corruption, they remain strongly committed to Hezbollah’s survival as Lebanon’s largest and most powerful militia and political movement.

The August 18 verdict of the special UN tribunal charged with investigating the murder of Rafic Hariri in 2005 will not change such calculations. On the contrary, the tribunal’s decision to convict only one Hezbollah operative will probably reassure Nasrallah that he can continue to pay lip service to the high demand of reform while taking whatever steps necessary to preserve the political status quo.

Iran’s leaders back Hezbollah and the “Lebanese people”

Like Hezbollah, Iran wants to pose as a defender of Lebanese society while ensuring that its ally remains the country’s dominant political and military power. Following the explosion, an Iranian foreign ministry spokesman warned that “some countries” were trying to “politicize the blast for their own interests.” Insisting that the “blast should not be used as an excuse for political aims,” he telegraphed Iran’s primary concern, namely that such efforts are aimed at undercutting Iran’s Lebanese friends.

This clever if unconvincing pitch for rising above “politics” came in tandem with statements by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif reiterating Iran’s readiness to provide humanitarian aid. Zarif’s August 14 visit to Beirut—during which he asserted that the “state and the people of Lebanon … must decide the future of Lebanon and how to move things forward”—underscored the pragmatic realism of two leaders who have been largely eclipsed by their hardline rivals. Indeed, Rouhani and Zarif might see in the Lebanese crisis an opportunity to reassert their role in defining Iran’s regional diplomacy. But with their wings already clipped, and in the face of continued US-Iranian tensions, they have little room for maneuver.

Rouhani and Zarif might see in the Lebanese crisis an opportunity to reassert their role in defining Iran’s regional diplomacy. But with their wings already clipped, and in the face of continued US-Iranian tensions, they have little room for maneuver.

In sharp contrast to the above messages, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Commander Hossein Salami framed Iran’s position in distinctly ideological and even sectarian terms. Because they are “the great stars of resistance in the Islamic world,” all “of our abilities will be mobilized to help the Lebanese people.” For the IRGC, the interests of the people and those of the resistance (i.e. Hezbollah) must be made inseparable. Thus, from the IRGC’s vantage point, it is essential to ensure that Iranian humanitarian aid to Lebanon is distributed in ways that enhance Hezbollah’s position. With some 300,000 left homeless by the blast, the escalating spread of COVID-19, and a partial collapse of the health system, the movement’s ability to leverage Iranian assistance has been further weakened. Nevertheless, for the IRGC, the survival of Hezbollah and the political system that has enabled it is an existential priority.

Hopes for a new U.S. policy?

President Macron’s August 6 visit to Beirut illustrated the paradox of reform in Lebanon. For within hours of declaring that the entire political system must be transformed, Macron held talks with all the key factional leaders. As in other divided societies, in Lebanon the road to change is controlled by the very political bosses who have sustained the system. They cannot be circumvented, even though engaging them gives these leaders the means to obstruct change. This is Lebanon’s catch-22.

While there is no simple solution to this conundrum, the prospects for change will remain slim so long as foreign states unconditionally support Lebanon’s factional leaders. What is needed, among other things, is a multilateral diplomatic effort that diminishes the incentives for foreign powers—not least of which are Iran and the United States—to wage their geostrategic disputes through the arena of Lebanon’s confessional rivalries. A reduction of these regional tensions could provide a necessary—if far from sufficient—context for fostering a much needed internal dialogue in Lebanon on how to move beyond the current stalemate.

For now, the prospects for this kind of diplomacy look grim. Having failed to gain the UN Security Council’s support for a renewal of the arms embargo on Iran, the Trump Administration now proposes to reimpose “snapback” sanctions. This policy plays into the hands of Iranian hard-liners and Hezbollah, both of whom want to avoid a military conflict with the United States and Israel while still reaping the political benefits of continued US-Iranian tensions. The recent publication of investigative reports in the European press that suggest a circuitous link between Hezbollah and the purchase of the chemicals that exploded on August 4 will keep Hezbollah on the defensive while emboldening its domestic critics. These developments are sure to further stoke Lebanon’s internal conflicts.

Perhaps the best that can be hoped for now is a massive effort by the international community to help Lebanon overcome its humanitarian crisis. The November 3, 2020 US elections could also invite a revival of talks between Iran, the United States, and the international community. Even if a Democratic Biden-Harris administration emerges, however, it would still have to contend with a regional order that has invested heavily in the very leaders who want to preserve Lebanon’s political system by hook or by crook.

This article has been republished with permission from the Arab Center DC.

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