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

Lebanon Gives Tehran a Double Whammy

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the general election in Lebanon made the headlines in Tehran’s official media. “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei had labeled the election as “a referendum on the Resistance Front”, a coalition of Iran-controlled groups that have struck roots in Iraq, Syria, north Yemen, Gaza and Lebanon. He had also publicly donated an extra $25million to the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah to ensure its victory.

Certain about securing a “crushing victory”, partly thanks to the misguided boycott declared by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the Tehran media had started speculations about whom Khamenei might choose as the next President if Lebanon were to replace the current octogenarian incumbent. The matter had been raised in the audience that Khamenei granted to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a lightning visit to Tehran.

At the same time Major General Esmail Qaani, chief of the Quds Force who is supposed to rule the “Resistance Front” countries as a satrap, had pinned his hopes on a victory in Lebanon to compensate for the massive defeat suffered by his hirelings in the Iraqi election earlier.

However, as official results came in, Khamenei and Qaani realized that the Lebanese electorate, or at least the 49 percent who went to the polls, had denied Tehran the “crushing victory” it had hoped for.

That meant a double whammy in two of the four Arab capitals that Ayatollah Ali Yunesi boasts are now under Tehran’s control; the others being Sanaa and Damascus.

The question was how to break the bad news to the Iranian public that is currently engaged in a nationwide uprising against the Khomeinist system?

The official IRNA agency, controlled by the office of the President, decided to describe the defeat as a failure for Hezbollah’s Christian and Druze allies rather than the group itself.

Despite the fact that turnout among Shiites was 11 percent lower than the average of two previous elections, IRNA boasted that the Shiite vote held for both Hezbollah and Amal.

Needless to say, the setback that Hezbollah suffered in the south, traditionally a Shiite stronghold, was not mentioned.

The Fars News Agency, controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, on the other hand, tried to drown the fish as they say by downgrading it to the 13th place in its news menu. Even then, it gave the results on a constituency by constituency basis, leaving the reader, if he were patient and good at maths, to work out the final result himself.

Giving a glimpse of Tehran’s anger, it also noted that while a new majority in the Lebanese parliament could be tolerated, it would not be allowed to change policy towards either Israel or the United States. A threat of assassination against the new majority in the Lebanese parliament? Who knows?

What is certain is that a majority of politically active Lebanese seek a new departure for the country. It is also certain that Hezbollah and its allies have been bloodied but, thanks to abiding support from the Islamic Republic, remain unbowed.

As Iran itself enters what looks like a new period of tension and crisis, that support is bound to diminish but is unlikely to evaporate overnight. Hezbollah may no longer have a veto on all key issues but retains enough power to delay and significantly block the path to the reconstruction of the Lebanese economy and political system. Blockage as a tactic is already being used by the defeated pro-Tehran groups in Iraq, delaying a return to normal governance, let alone embarking on long overdue reforms.

In other words Lebanon isn’t yet out of the deadly maze created for it by the Islamic Republic and its allies. Delaying tactics could prevent the nomination of a new prime minister and, later, a new president. And that, in turn, would prevent the injection of aid promised by the International Monetary Fund, not to mention private Lebanese and foreign investors.

The way to deal with such delaying tactic could be a direct appeal to the Shiite community that is equally suffering from the economic meltdown caused by foreign intervention. Numerous direct and indirect messages from Shiites inside Lebanon indicate a growing weariness with a scheme that sees the country, in the words of Tehran’s Kayhan daily, as nothing but a “shield for Islamic Republic” in Iran. Large chunks of the Shiite community have seen the prosperity they had secured since the 1980s melt away as a result of the economic crisis that has plunged 70 percent of the Lebanese into poverty.

The election results are good news for a number of reasons.

They close the sorry chapter of Michel Aoun and also see the back of Saad Hariri, who has self-destructed. The immovable Speaker Nabih Berri may also have become movable, if not immediately but in due course. The fact that 13 to 16 newcomers, standing as independents, have managed to enter the closed citadel of a parliament controlled by a handful of corrupt and incompetent barons is also good news.

What is important now is for the international community to offer Lebanon a package of quick aid as a reward for having opted for change. In other words the international community should not enter a delaying tango in which Hezbollah delays the formation of a government and the IMF delays the writing of checks. The same goes for other potential foreign investors. Making their help conditional on relegating Hezbollah to the backyard would only play in the hands of Tehran which claims Lebanon cannot move forward without Hezbollah.

Wresting control of many state institutions, including security, away from Hezbollah is unlikely to happen overnight. And disbanding Hezbollah’s parallel army would be even more complicated to achieve.

Granting Lebanon urgent relief from its current pains would send a positive message that even a slight distancing of Hezbollah from full control could bear fruits for the average Lebanese. That, in turn, would strengthen the message that Lebanon could do better without a politico-military Trojan Horse in its midst.

There is no doubt that Hezbollah is an illness and the key cause of Lebanon’s sorry state today. But this is a disease that cannot be cured with instant surgery; it requires patient treatment. The latest election could signal the start of that process which is bound to be accelerated by positive developments in Iraq and, eventually, in Iran itself.