Sam Menassa

Hochstein and Abdollahian… Deal-Making or Mine-Planting?

The developments seen in the region over the past few days and weeks seem contradictory and incomprehensible, from the visit of the US Special Presidential Coordinator for Global Infrastructure and Energy Security Amos Hochstein’s visit to Lebanon, which coincided with the arrival of Iranian Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian in Beirut, to the debates regarding expansion of the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces’ mandate in South Lebanon, which were decided by a French formula that went against the wishes of Lebanon and Hezbollah (though no party intends to change the rules of engagement this stage).
Added to these events are murmurs of potential limited or major military escalation on the border, following Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant’s claims that Hezbollah’s movements make escalation more likely.
With regard to the region in general, Syria is boiling on several fronts following the escalation of Israeli air raids and strikes on Iranian targets there, and East of the Euphrates. There is also a lot of talk about the American attempts to seize control of the Syrian-Iraqi border. Although Pentagon Spokesman Pat Ryder denied the reports to this effect and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah referred to them as mere illusions, pledging to prevent the materialization of this outcome, it does fit into the framework of the struggle for influence in the region between the Americans and the Iranians.
At the center of this scene, we have the link that has been in for some time now between the rumors about transferring the leadership of operations from the West Bank to Lebanon and Nasrallah’s threat that “any assassination of a Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Iranian, or other national on Lebanese territory, will be met with forceful retaliation.” His assertion was made in response to Benjamin Netanyahu threatening to assassinate Saleh Al-Arouri, deputy head of Hamas’s political bureau, in Lebanon.
Hochstein is in Beirut to safeguard the calm needed by the Americans and Israel to allow the US-Iranian deal to materialize, i.e. the agreement to demarcate the maritime borders between Lebanon and Israel conclude in October 2022. His visit is also aimed at stabilizing the border as tensions between Iran and Israel continue to rise in Syria. In fact, the trip might be the first step in a long and complex negotiation process to demarcate the land borders. These negotiations run up against two major obstacles: the village of Ghajar and the Shebaa Farms.
These negotiations would need a lot of time, but simply starting negotiations implies that the peace will not be disturbed with acrid speeches or threats by either of the two parties, which perhaps is required. Hezbollah might be in particular need of such a deal, which would restore its image as a resistance force; indeed, at one point, before its discourse lost all meaning over the past decade and a half, this image had made it popular, especially in the Arab world.
The fact that the two visits coincided is striking, but the two men probably did not deliberately coordinate their simultaneous arrivals. However, both were brought by the turbulence in the region, especially in the east. Three mines could sabotage efforts at building calm and concluding agreements.
The first is a miscalculation precipitating a war that neither party seeks. The second is the persistent attempts to surround Israel with a belt of modern and advanced weaponry with the aim of retaliating against any American or Israeli military action taken against Iran, which means the persistence of arms transfers.
In addition, it is difficult to separate the Lebanese-Israel matter from the matter between Iranian and the US in Syria, where a silent war between Israel and Hezbollah and Iran is brewing and where Israel has been striking Tehran’s arms shipments and weapons depots. In addition to this war, tensions between the Americans and the militias affiliated with Iran are escalating east of the Euphrates. There are several reasons for this escalation, including the US seeking to create a counterweight to the Russian deployments in Syria, especially after Russia increased its coordination and cooperation with the Iranians as the war between Moscow and Kyiv, Washington, and its allies, rages on.
The third is a recent development, the leaks regarding operational headquarters being transferred from the occupied West Bank to Lebanon and the presence of the deputy head of Hamas, Al-Arouri, in Beirut, whom Israel threatens to assassinate. This mine is complex. Its first dimension is the prospect of uniting fronts, especially if the reports about the West Bank being armed in preparation for a confrontation with Israel, despite disagreement with Hamas and claims that it is negotiating a sustainable truce in Gaza with Israel and Egypt, are accurate. If the information is accurate, any confrontation in the West Bank, Gaza, or South Lebanon could leave all of these fronts in flames.
All of this makes clear that mines that have been planted could be part of the negotiation process. Indeed, Iran is notorious for using this approach. Washington's objectives are clear. It is aware that comprehensive settlements remain far off and that the alternatives are bilateral agreements with Iran. These deals would encompass everything from Iran’s nuclear program, to the security of Israel, to South Lebanon, Iraq, and even the developments in Syria and all the complications around them.
The primary objectives of Iran’s ruse, at this stage, are safeguarding its deal with Saudi Arabia, as well as containing and strengthening its allies in their spheres of influence. It is keen on preserving its gains and not abandoning them as it pursues clams.
Tehran intends to shift the focus, if possible, towards the Palestinian question, around which there is consensus in the region, though the significance of this question varies from one country to another. The Iranian regime believes that while other conflicts have reached an impasse, the Palestinian cause brings multiple benefits, the first of which is regaining the popularity that it has lost in the Arab world. Emphasizing the Palestinian struggle also helps to obstruct any Arab-Israeli understandings that may be in the works.
Iran also sees an opportunity in what it believes is a moment of vulnerability and decline in Israel, amid domestic disputes that Iran thinks could allow for provoking Israel without a broader conflict breaking out. This line of thinking is nothing more than a dangerous delusion that could lead to deadly missteps in the region. However, Iran knows that Washington does not want war and is seeking to make deals, and this gives it time and space to maneuver.