Lebanon’s latest political crisis sheds light on Iran's strategic thinking

Hezbollah backed down when its tactics threatened to create more damage than benefits

epa07521731 A TV grab handout photo from Hezbollah's al-Manar TV shows Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah giving a speech during the 34th anniversary for Hezbollah al-Mahdi scouts, in southern Beirut, Lebanon, 22 April 2019. Nasrallah called the sanctions on Iran, Syria and Venezuela It is an aggression against free peoples. Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said that Syria's enemies are trying to implement their aggressive plans through unilateral economic measures after failing to achieve them through terrorism and military aggression.  EPA/AL-MANAR TV GRAB HANDOUT  HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY/NO SALES
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The defusing of a major political crisis in Lebanon this week after Hezbollah paused a bellicose campaign against its main domestic critic offered a rare glimpse of Iran’s capacity to back down when an escalation comes to the verge of an outcome beyond its control.

Although the rough school of Lebanese politics is in different league to the US-Iran tensions, Beirut is an interlinking piece in a geopolitical chain comprised of Iranian-backed militia proxies. Their tactics often reflect strategic moves of their backers in Tehran.

In this case Iran appears to have blinked. Its rivals united and held their ground against Hezbollah pressure, which kept mounting to the point of possibly putting off western donors crucial for any economic recovery.

At the centre of the crisis has been Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. His backstage stewardship has been crucial to the survival of Lebanon’s small but established Druze community and to the perseverance of a western-backed anti-Hezbollah bloc hit by the rising regional power of Iranian proxies.

In Paris last year, mostly western donors pledged $11 billion (Dh40.4bn) for an economic rescue package but demanded fundamental reforms first. As yet Lebanon has mostly not delivered, partly a reflection of the contradictions in a political system dominated by Hezbollah as the only armed, non-state actor.

The crisis jeopardised the prospects of this cash infusion, raising fears of an economic collapse and a run on what many consider an overvalued Lebanese pound reeling under public debt that stands at one-and-half times the gross domestic product.

In this doomsday scenario, which could prompt sectarian tensions breaking into the open, among the worst hit financially would be Tehran’s Shiite constituency in Lebanon, which doubles as Hezbollah’s core recruitment base.

For decades Hezbollah had played on what it terms the marginalisation and lack of economic opportunity for Shiites, who comprise an estimated 28 per cent of Lebanon’s estimated 6 million population.

Hezbollah and its allies have tried to bring down Mr Jumblatt for two years, cutting him out of the backroom political deals that are the hallmark of Lebanon’s divided, and sectarian, polity.

When that failed, pro-Hezbollah Druze factions initiated what amounted to armed incursions in the Chouf Mountains, the heartland of the Druze, in an apparent bid to stoke violence within the community.

In one such move last year a Jumblatt supporter was killed. In the latest, on June 30 two bodyguards of a pro-Hezbollah junior Druze minister were killed and two Jumblatt supporters were wounded. The shoot-out became known as the Basateen incident.

Lebaenese MP and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt (R) and Samir Geagea, the leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces ex-militia, attend a mass gathering to mark the first anniversary of premier Rafiq Hariri's assassination in central Beirut 14 February 2006. Speaking at the mass rally, Jumblatt went a step further to brand Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a "terrorist tyrant". The Lebanese capital was transformed into a sea of red and white flags as Lebanon marked the first anniversary, still struggling to unite in the shadow of its former powerbroker Syria.  AFP PHOTO/RAMZI HAIDAR (Photo by RAMZI HAIDAR / AFP)

In a rare, fairly co-ordinated defensive move, two of Lebanon’s main political figures, one Sunni and one Christian, decided after significant hesitation to support Mr Jumblatt, restoring some unity to the anti-Hezbollah bloc, which had mostly fizzled out after Hezbollah took over parts of Beirut by force in 2008.

When Hezbollah allies said the Basateen shooting was an assassination attempt on the junior minister, suggested that Mr Jumblatt was culpable and that the case should go to a special tribunal seen as under their sway, Prime Minister Saad Hariri made sure that the issue would not come up on his government’s agenda. This meant a freeze on cabinet meetings, sending more shivers through the financial markets.

Hezbollah’s main Christian allies are President Michel Aoun and his son-in law Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister who was supposed to have been in the area of the shooting June 30 but did not go. Some of Mr Aoun’s supporters, and apparently the president himself, suggested Mr Bassil was the real target of the alleged assassination attempt.

In a further boost to Mr Jumblatt, Christian leader Samir Geagea said Hezbollah and Mr Bassil were using tactics reminiscent of the 1975-1990 civil war and direct Syrian regime tutelage seen till 2005.

Mr Geagea leads the Lebanese Forces, a former militia turned political party that has four members in the 30-member cabinet, which convened on Saturday after Mr Jumblatt, Mr Hariri, Mr Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri held what was billed as a reconciliation meeting.

The Basateen case has now been put on the back burner, having been handed over to a military tribunal divided along pro and anti-Hezbollah lines.

Hezbollah retreated only when the damage to its own interests outweighed the benefits from its violent tactics, suggesting its Tehran backers read situations rationally when the costs become too high.