Iran’s leaders are issuing contradictory messages. It is not clear whether this is part of a good cop, bad cop routine or whether they reflect genuine disagreements within the Iranian regime between hardline and reconciliatory factions.
While president Hassan Rouhani was saying his country was ready to forge friendly relations with all Islamic countries, including Iran’s neighbours, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was meeting a Houthi delegation and renewing his support for the rebels. Islamic Revolutionary Guard commander Hossein Salami, for his part, cautioned foreign powers against continued deployment in the Gulf, saying they must take into account Iran’s capabilities.
In curiously timed statements, the IRGC commander also boasted that Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia party backed by Iran, has acquired advanced combat capabilities and cutting-edge missiles. As Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was visiting Washington, the timing appears to have been chosen to undermine him and remind adversaries that it is Tehran that controls Lebanon’s fate through Hezbollah, which it can decide at any time to activate.
In Washington, Mr Hariri was walking a tightrope. He heard firm declarations that the Trump administration and Congress do not intend to relent on the issue of sanctions on Hezbollah and those who provide it with political, military and intelligence cover. Mr Hariri was told he shoulders responsibility for finding ways to deliver Lebanon's commitments. He was also told that US policy on Iran and Hezbollah is incontrovertible and marks a serious departure from the bending policies of previous administrations, primarily that led by Barack Obama. The US government communicated its objectives clearly to Mr Hariri, leaving no room for excuses or pussyfooting.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, standing beside Mr Hariri, declared that the Middle East is under threat from Iran and that the Lebanese people are under threat from Hezbollah. He reiterated Washington’s commitment to help Lebanon defend itself through the state and army and facilitate the demarcation of land and maritime borders with Israel.
A high-level American source, summing up the US message to Lebanon, said: “We stressed that he must achieve progress and take concrete steps to distance himself from Hezbollah with a strong position in this direction… we need to see progress, not setting a process.” The Trump administration put forward a set of parameters for clear overarching goals, the source revealed.
These goals seek to weaken Hezbollah's hold over Lebanon and gradually dismantle Iranian influence over the country. The Trump administration is certain that the coming sanctions will strangle and paralyse Hezbollah's civilian operations and those who provide support for the group.
The US officials made it clear that American taxpayer money being channelled to Lebanon should not be spent to help Hezbollah in any way, and that continued Hezbollah domination over Lebanon would mean Cedre or other aid money would be denied.
In short, the US will not allow anyone to be an ally or enabler of Hezbollah without accountability. Even Washington’s allies will not be spared from this equation; those who think they are acting as Lebanon’s safety valve are in truth Hezbollah’s safety valve, as long as the group remains part of the government.
While Hezbollah operates outside official financial and military institutions to avoid sanctions, it has infiltrated them, but the Trump administration will not tolerate this having decided to put maximum pressure on Iran and its proxies in the region. Now Hezbollah, which sees Mr Hariri as its safety valve and shield against US sanctions, European measures, and even the verdict of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, could find itself without protection, even if Mr Hariri remains in his post.
A separate crisis was instigated when Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt said the Shebaa Farms were not Lebanese. Damascus has deliberately declined to answer for two main reasons: It suits Syria to say the Israeli-occupied area is Lebanese to prevent a peace agreement between Lebanon and Israel and to keep Lebanon intertwined with Syria with regard to any such agreement.
Tehran considers Hezbollah to be its most important achievement and asset. But Washington is moving to stop Tehran from continuing to create Hezbollah-like proxies in the region. The Trump administration is convinced that maximum pressure on the Iranian regime requires targeting Hezbollah for the policy to be more effective.
Meanwhile, Iran’s leaders are in the process of reviewing their strategies after their failed bets on European panic and friendship with China and Russia. For this reason, the tactic of inviting war has now been apparently suspended, at least until after the G7 summit next weekend.