Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Where Russian and Iranian Aircraft Carriers Clash

Last week, the Tehran daily Kayhan, believed to reflect the views of "Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei offered its readers a front-page treat.

It claimed that Arabs "are clamoring for statues of General Qassem Suleimani to be installed in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, cities that he has saved from ISIS."

The claim came hot on the heels of the Sochi meeting in which Russian President Vladimir Putin officially asserted his control over the Syrian dossier, at least as far as one side of that tragedy is concerned.

Did the mullahs want to contest Putin's role as "savior of Syria" by advancing an even bigger claim on behalf of Soleimani, known in Tehran as "The Selfie General"?

It is almost certain that regardless of what happens next in Syria, the mullahs of Tehran are unlikely to grab the leading role in shaping that nation’s future. Besides Russia there are several other major players in Syria who won’t welcome the take-over bid from Tehran. So, there is no chance of a Soleimani statue in Damascus anytime soon.

The same thing could be said about Baghdad, the Iraqi capital where Tehran is suffering from the loss of even some of the staunchest of its allies. Large chunks of Iraqi Shi’ites are beginning to feel self-confident enough to reject tutelage from Tehran. As for Iraqi Kurds, only the remnants of the Talabani faction, liked to Tehran through juicy business deals, still look to Tehran for guidance and support. Iran’s bizarre decision to join Turkey in threatening the use of force over the abortive secession referendum has torn the mask of “friendship for the Kurds” that the mullahs had worn for decades.

That leaves Beirut where Gen. Soleimani’s “Hezbollah” gunmen may still look able to plant his statue. But even that is now open to question as dark clouds gather on the horizon.

Having illegally extended its term, the parliament is still tempted with the idea of prolonging its own life yet again. And that would mean the continuation of a presidency and a premiership on the basis of decisions by a parliament which lost its legitimacy years ago.

Elected on the basis of quotas for the country’s 18 religious communities the self-perpetuating parliament is split down the middle and unable to decide anything one way or another.

One half of the parliament is controlled by a coterie of politicians who spend more time abroad than Beirut. To them, Lebanon is more of a milking cow than a country. A former President retired with $200 million, most of it immediately invested in Parisian property. Another top leader has spent more time building a Crusaders’ style chateau than mingling with his constituents.

Because top posts and juicy contracts are distributed according to sectarian quotas, the sect leaders wield immense powers of patronage in pork-barrel politics. One half of the Parliament wants Lebanon to reassert its “Arab identity” and join the front against Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.

The other half controlled by a coalition led by “Hezbollah” sees Lebanon as “Iran’s aircraft carrier on the Mediterranean”, as the Tehran daily Kayhan put it.

For “Hezbollah” what matters is the interest of the sectarian Khomeinist movement led by the mullahs in Tehran.

In that context, Iran has sent thousands of “Hezbollah” fighters to Syria, helping Bashar al-Assad kill Syrians.

According to estimates by Iranian media, “Hezbollah” sustains heavy losses so that Iran avoids sending its own fighters to Syria.

With a heavily armed militia of 30,000, “Hezbollah” is better equipped than the Lebanese National Army. It is also the public face of over 400 companies, banks and Shi’ite associations financed and controlled by Iran, often acting as a state within the state. With a mixture of bribes and threats of assassination, Iran also runs a network of political clients in other communities. Its generosity includes some Christians, Druze and even Sunni Muslim personalities and groups.

Iran’s priority in Lebanon is to ensure the territorial contiguity of Shi’ite- areas from the Syrian border to the ceasefire line with Israel. This means annexing Christian, Druze and other minority villages that resemble an archipelago in a sea of Shiism.

To achieve that, according to local reports, Iran is paying generous prices to buy those villages. Where money doesn’t work, the shadow of the gun does the trick.

By some estimates, Iran might achieve its aim within a year or two.

So far, the two halves of Lebanon have managed not to come to blows because neither side is sure of winning. An important reason is that right now only one camp is armed and the other exposed.

However, the fragile balance is in danger for two reasons. The first is that the Assad regime may not be able to hang on much longer.

Despite Russia's diplomatic gesticulations that included a brief seaside encounter between President Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, when it comes to Syria’s future regime, Moscow and Tehran do not sing from the same hymn sheet.

Tehran still pursues the dream of restoring Syria’s unity under Assad even if that means many more years of war.

Moscow, however, is reviving the old French colonial scheme of “la Syrie utile” (useful Syria). This means carving out a mini-state between the mountains west of Damascus and the Mediterranean.

In that enclave Assad’s Alawite community represents a plurality. Russia is already building a number of bases and stationing troops there. The ports of Latakia, al-Soda, and Tartus, located in the would-be mini-state, could provide the Russian navy with a presence in the Mediterranean for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Syria could become Russia’s “aircraft carrier”.

And that could mean cutting off Iran from its Lebanese “aircraft carrier.”

The "Syria de-escalation plan" would divide Syria into five zones controlled by Russia, Turkey, Iran, Jordan and the US and its Kurdish allies. However, the problem, as far as Iran is concerned, is that the zone assigned to it in Syria may not be contiguous to Lebanese territory.

Keeping Iran as far from Lebanon and, through the Golan Heights, also away from Israel, is a sine-qua-non for US endorsement of Putin's Syria plan.

The second reason why the Lebanese balancing act may be in danger is the popular anger seething under the surface, a force that could sweep away a corrupt, cynical and, in some cases, criminal elite.