What is Iran's latest game plan in Lebanon?

Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian’s visit to the country is both clarifying and troubling

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian visits the village of Maroun El-Rass on the Lebanon-Israel border with Hezbollah members and lawmakers on Friday. AP Photo
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The Iranian regime has lately sought to appear moderate, including by softening the revolutionary tone and threatening rhetoric adopted by its proxies in the Middle East, and by supposedly deepening their political integration in their respective countries. Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy, is an example of this new thinking in Tehran. What the regime seems to be doing in the process is using the strategy of a spider, which ensnares its prey by spinning a web around it and keeping it alive and fresh for later consumption.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian’s visit to Lebanon over the weekend was an indication that Tehran will continue propping up Hezbollah, while seemingly engaging with the Lebanese state, its leading parties and members of parliament, in an apparent recognition of the country’s democratic process.

However, Mr Amirabdollahian’s visit included a meeting with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and concluded with a visit to the Lebanese-Israeli border without prior clearance from the authorities in Beirut. In doing so, he demonstrated an Iranian policy towards the Lebanese government that is based on the following principles: non-recognition of Lebanese sovereignty; preserving Hezbollah’s weapons and doctrine as they are, with the proxy being Iran’s military, regional and strategic ally, and the main arm of the regime and its regional projects.

Iranian officials seldom ask for permission from Lebanon before visiting the country. They arrive without invitation, simply informing Lebanese officials that they are on their way. This is what happened when Mr Amirabdollahian made his weekend trip – his first since his meeting with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan to implement their bilateral agreement. It’s worth noting that key provisions in the agreement, signed in Beijing in March, include a commitment to not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries in the region and to respect their sovereignty.

Iran’s logic adopted an expanded scope of the agreement with an emphasis on resolving the crisis in Yemen first. During his meetings with Lebanese officials, Mr Amirabdollahian conveyed that Tehran is ready to help resolve the Yemen crisis, sending a message that Saudi Arabia has priorities in Yemen that Iran is responding to. On other issues, such as Lebanon, he offered no indication that Iran will provide assistance in solving its problems, which are mainly the outcomes of Hezbollah’s positions, whether on its insistence on maintaining Iranian arms and acting as a state within a state, and taking orders from Tehran; or on influencing its other ally, the Assad regime, to commit to the safe return of Syrian refugees to their country.

Mr Amirabdollahian did convey his country's supposed willingness to provide Lebanon with oil grants and assistance in electricity generation. However, he knows Lebanon doesn’t want to expose itself to US sanctions in the process.

The Lebanese stop in the foreign minister's tour of Arab countries was meant to emphasise Iran’s prominence as a regional actor that decides freely who to help and when to do so. For this reason, he reiterated in his meetings that if the dialogue between Saudi Arabia and the Houthis fails to resolve the Yemen crisis, Iran would be ready to intervene to persuade the Houthis to do what is necessary.

Mr Amirabdollahian told Lebanese officials that what matters to Iran is that Lebanon elects a president, appoints a prime minister and forms a government to restore normality. Practically, however, he didn’t say whether the presidency card is negotiable. Indeed, amid negotiations with Saudi Arabia about Hezbollah's regional roles, Iran’s priority remains a reinforcement of its proxy’s position in Lebanon and Syria.

A noteworthy event during his visit was a meeting he convened at the Iranian embassy, which included certain parliamentary blocs and excluded others, to show that Iran's new diplomatic approach is to engage with the Lebanese on parliamentary, social and grassroots levels. However, the meeting revealed a deep-rooted weakness, particularly as Mr Amirabdollahian affirmed upon his arrival in Beirut that Tehran will continue to impose the formula of "the Army, the People, and the Resistance”, which effectively removes the state's authority over its entire territory.

All this means that those suggesting that the regime could choose to disengage from Hezbollah or dismantle its networks are rushing to false conclusions.

The same can be said about the assumptions regarding Syria and its strong relations with the Iranian regime. Some have expressed hope that this relationship will break down for logical reasons, including Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's need to assert his authority over his country instead of deferring to Iranian influence, and to benefit from Arab financing of reconstruction if he decides to break these ties. However, limiting ties with Iran or Hezbollah won’t be easy.

Meanwhile, the Syrian refugee crisis in Lebanon continues to fester with few solutions in sight. Lebanon has hosted almost 2 million refugees despite challenges of its own, since the Syrian civil broke out more than a decade ago. But the Assad regime appears not to want their return, almost as if the fact that these refugees are being supported by the international community relieves the regime of its political burden.

The responsibility for the crisis lies also with Hezbollah, which has played a key role in displacing these refugees in the first place, including by destroying their villages in Syria and preventing their return. The UN’s bureaucratic fecklessness and policies adopted by some European governments are other reasons for inaction on the issue – as is the failure of the Lebanese government and its politicians to deal with the problem.

What is happening in Lebanon today requires Arab vigilance so that these refugees don’t face the same fate as the Palestinian refugees, whose return to Palestine has become nearly impossible. The return of Syrians to their country could prove even more difficult unless a comprehensive regional and international strategy is adopted to address the various elements of this crisis.

The Lebanese-Syrian frontier is of utmost importance, too, not only in terms of the need to control smuggling but also to demarcate the land and sea borders between Lebanon and Syria. Closing the border is a measure rejected by several Lebanese parties, including Hezbollah, which is still present militarily inside Syria. Herein lies the surreal paradox that brings us back to the Iranian regime’s contributions to both the Syrian and Lebanese crises.

While the immediate priority for Saudi Arabia and Iran is to end the Yemen conflict, Iran's policies towards Lebanon and Syria must be quickly addressed before tensions in Lebanon turn into a catastrophic war.

Published: April 30, 2023, 2:15 PM