Contrary to some assumptions in Lebanon when analysing the impact of Saudi-Iranian relations on their country’s future, there is no real rift between the two powers after they recently signed an agreement. Rather, Tehran’s intentions are being put to the test as it takes steps towards improving relations with the Arab world, such as by calling for talks on the Durra gas field disputed between Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia and Kuwait on the other.
While Lebanon is not a top priority in the Saudi-Iranian dialogue, it is not completely excluded from this stage of discussions either. Yet both parties have so far avoided discussing details of developments in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, with the focus being on implementing the bilateral aspect of their agreement.
Of course, not everyone in Tehran favours the agreement with Saudi Arabia. Some in its leadership seek escalation as US-Saudi relations are being boosted by a major reset, making the revival of the nuclear agreement, which would lift sanctions on Iran, unlikely before the 2024 US presidential election. Consequently, Lebanon is a potential arena for escalation if Tehran deems it necessary. Lebanon is also linked to the Iranian agenda in Syria and to rogue Palestinian agendas disguised as resistance with false claims of seeking the liberation of Palestine.
Lebanese authorities have not acted on the security risk inside the country’s Palestinian camps, where violent disputes between armed factions reflect a struggle for control between Fatah and Hamas. That these factions’ arms fall outside the state’s control are a reminder of Hezbollah’s own weapons, which challenge the state’s sovereignty.
Key Arab states are conveying to Lebanon that total collapse of the country could be inevitable if its governing class continues its games and ploys for electing a president, forming a government, and appointing a full-time central bank governor. The banality of some political players is matched only by their narcissism, while Hezbollah vies to create a new system in Lebanon that officially legitimises its weapons.
Be that as it may, Gulf countries seek to fortify the Taif Agreement, bolster the National Accord Charter, and shore up the authority of the president and prime minister.
One diplomat who did not wish to be named told me that key to finding solutions to Lebanon’s problems requires its leaders examining them from a political perspective, not just an economic one. In other words, Lebanon needs to reconsider its foreign policy priorities, rather than focusing solely on the economic aspects of its relations with the Gulf.
The tussle to pick a new president continues, as Hezbollah wants someone aligned with its interests. It might accept Commander of the Armed Forces Joseph Aoun’s candidacy as a compromise, for he is acceptable regionally and to the US, as well as to significant Lebanese factions. However, the incident in the mountain village of Kahaleh, where a truck loaded with Hezbollah weapons overturned at a bend in the road and led to a deadly shootout between residents and the group, has proved to be a test for the army’s leadership. It has also laid bare Hezbollah’s intentions.
When it comes to the presidential election, the regional equation enters the fray of local Lebanese considerations.
It might lead Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah to show some humility and settle for less than complete control over the president and the army commander. Indeed, some leaders within the Iranian regime don’t want their domination over Lebanon to be labelled as brazen.
Meanwhile, they are uncomfortable with recent developments in Syria, where Iran’s relationship with Russia is reportedly under strain, and where the US and Turkey’s interests could be converging. Moreover, Moscow increasingly needs Ankara and is willing to make a deal over Syria, which unsettles Tehran.
These geopolitical considerations are driving policymaking within Iran, which is also grappling with internal restlessness due to its major policy pivots such as the agreement with Saudi Arabia.
In Tehran, there is a faction that is unhappy with the Saudi role as a regional and international player, as evidenced by its recent Jeddah summit to find a solution to the Ukraine conflict. This faction seeks to retain Hezbollah as a valuable card in Lebanon for disruptive purposes and for future negotiations with Saudi Arabia.
Arab countries are under no illusion that a radical change has occurred in the Iranian regime’s policy and ideology. But they hope it will demonstrate good intentions by refraining from threatening the freedom of navigation in the neighbourhood’s waterways. It remains to be seen whether Tehran also avoids escalating the conflict in Yemen and abstaining from increasing uranium enrichment for use in nuclear weapons production.
Any significant economic co-operation between Iran and the Gulf countries is contingent upon the US lifting key sanctions on Tehran related to the nuclear issue. There doesn’t seem to be an imminent nuclear agreement, but there are deals that could involve a commitment from Tehran not to increase enrichment and to release American detainees in exchange for the release of Iranian funds held by third parties.
The impact of Iran’s economic situation will not be contained internally, as it will affect its proxies and direct engagements – with Syria being an example. Tehran is observing Arab reactions towards Syria, and a forthcoming meeting of an Arab League ad-hoc committee will convene to follow the “step-by-step” agreement for Syria’s rehabilitation.
That will be a topic of discussion when Russian President Vladimir Putin pays a visit to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as is expected to happen soon. It is a meeting Tehran might follow with trepidation.
In exchange for giving the Kremlin the transit of Russian goods through Turkey, Ankara seeks a free hand in Syria. This is bad news for Tehran, which has pledged to the Assad regime to recover all of Syria’s territories while remaining the sole regional military player in the country. However, this is less likely to materialise because Russia is no longer Iran’s unwavering partner in Syria, considering the changing dynamics in the Ukraine war.
The Iranian regime is also aware of the significance of the Biden administration’s recent pivot to Saudi Arabia, as the two countries explore co-operation in areas spanning security, military, intelligence, economy and technology. Some in the regime are uncomfortable with Riyadh’s growing influence not just vis-a-vis the US, but also with China, India, Russia and other countries.
There was hope that the Saudi-Iranian agreement would herald a substantial breakthrough in Lebanon – as would talks among members of the Quintet Committee, comprised of Egypt, France, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the US. Both possibilities remain viable.
But the time has come for more stringent actions towards the various Lebanese factions and for earnest discussions with the Iranian leadership over Hezbollah’s future. Delaying these conversations could trigger catastrophic scenarios, such as another devastating war with neighbouring Israel.