Tehran ponders the spoils of victory
DAMASCUS - We were watching the news coming in from Beirut, as armed Hezbollah troopers stormed entire neighborhoods of Beirut, loyal to parliamentary majority leader Saad al-Hariri. The anchor for al-Manar, Hezbollah's TV station, was roaming the streets of Hamra, Ain Mraiseh and Quraytem, reporting on events from his party's perspective.
He was basically saying that this was not a coup launched by Hezbollah against Prime Minister Fouad al-Siniora. Rather than take power, Hezbollah restored authority to the Lebanese army after overpowering March 14 in more than six hours of fighting. Rumor had it that in a show of muscle, they were going to cross off Rafik Hariri's name and rename the international airport after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. At one point, the al-Manar TV anchor stood by Starbucks Coffee on Hamra Street and a friend watching the report muttered, "What are they going to next? Rename it Shah-bucks?"
The joke is not exactly correct, since supporters of the Islamic regime in Tehran would never name anything after the shah they deposed in the Islamic revolution of 1979. But the joke shows how deep-rooted Iran-o-phobia has become in the Arab world. Many onlookers saw what happened as a battle between the Iran-backed Hezbollah, and the Saudi-backed March 14 Coalition that is headed by Hariri. Clearly from results, the Iranians won in Beirut. The Saudis lost.
Shortly after relative calm had been restored, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal came out with an exceptionally harsh statement against Hezbollah. He drew parallels between Nasrallah and former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, who invaded Beirut when serving as minister of defense in 1982.
What Hezbollah did was an invasion, said the Saudi minister, who has long feared Iranian power in the Muslim world, adding, "Iran is backing what happened in Lebanon, a coup, and supports it." He then added, "This will affect Iran's relations with all Arab countries, if not Islamic states as well." These hard words were echoed in different fashion by US President George W Bush, who was visiting Israel on the 60th anniversary of its creation, saying, "A lot of my trip is to get people to focus not only on Lebanon, to remember Lebanon, but also to remember that Iran causes a lot of the problems. I view Iran as a serious threat to peace."
His National Security Advisor, Stephen Hadley, added, "Iran and Syria ... are what is behind this." Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad snapped back on the same day, "Iran is the only country not interfering in Lebanon. Who are those that call, support, encourage [what is happening in Beirut]? Whose ambassador is running away?" That was in reference to the Saudi ambassador who reportedly fled Beirut when fighting broke out on May 7. The Iranian daily Kayhan, a mouthpiece for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, trumpeted, "In the power struggle in the Middle East, there are only two sides: Iran and the United States."
That probably is true. The Israelis have a long-term vision for the Middle East. So do the Turks. So do the Americans, and the Iranians. The only ones who have no clue where they are heading, and who are being shoved around as pawns, are the Arabs.
Just as during the Cold War, some cuddled up to the United States, others cuddled up to the other superpower, the Soviet Union. In the 1960s, it was the Syrians, Iraqis and Egyptians in the Eastern bloc with the Soviets, and Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon working with the US. With regard to the Saudis, they have always been reliable allies for the Americans. The two sides have worked together since the 1940s to contain communism, Nasserism, Khomeinism, and since September 11, terrorism. They now find themselves in the same boat - for completely different reasons - combating what can safely be described as Nasrallahism.
Is it an independent subfield, or does it fall under the broad battle against Khomeinism - the legacy of the leader of the Iranian revolution in 1979, ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini?
Nasrallah, the charismatic leader of Hezbollah, does not hide his loyalty to the Islamic republic and its Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Contrary to what many people would like to believe, however, he does not want to create a theocracy in Beirut. When Hezbollah was founded in 1982, it was the product of the Iranian regime and it did call for an Iran-style republic in Beirut. It grew out of the secular movement Amal (to which it is still allied) and using Iranian arms and money, became one of the strongest armed groups in the waning years of the civil war.
But that is now history. Parties develop with time and experience; they change programs according to surrounding circumstances. The Ba'ath Party of neighboring Syria started out in 1947 calling for a classless, socialist government, yet today, 45 years after coming to power, it is very far from a socialist state.
Nasrallah, who came to power in the early 1990s with the full support of then-Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, is someone who knows the Lebanese system well. He realizes that even if he wished, he could not assume power in Lebanon. The confessional system, with all its faults, prevents him from harboring such an ambition. At best he can rule by proxy, through or with a Christian heavyweight. At present, this proxy is former army commander and Christian heavyweight in the Lebanese opposition, General Michel Aoun.
While observing Hezbollah's behavior last week, many claimed it was seconds away from doing just that; marching on the Grand Sarrail, toppling the Siniora cabinet and setting up a Shi'ite president. One must not forget, however, that Iran would never allow it. Not because Iran is Mr Nice Guy, but because Iranian leaders are seasoned statesmen who know what it takes to live in a heated and hostile Sunni Arab environment.
Last year, when hostilities erupted between the March 14 Coalition and Hezbollah, Iran applied full pressure on its Lebanese proxies to avoid engaging in confrontation that would anger Saudi Arabia. They can wrestle with the Saudis in Lebanon - and Iraq - and flirt with them on a variety of regional issues, but they would never go into full out war, or even on the verge of it, that would spell out destruction of both countries' economies and prestige.
Thinking they could turn Lebanon into another Iran by exporting the Iranian revolution is madness and nobody knows that better than the Iranians. What they did was flex their muscle in Beirut, give their opponents a bloody nose, and then backed down, waving their fists, "If you do this [provoke us], we can do it again and again."
The Saudis received the message loud and clear. They realized their intelligence and logistical support were no match to those of the Iranians in Lebanon. And their current proxies are simply no match for those of Iran.
The Saudis need to find new allies - stronger allies - or else the imbalance in power politics of Beirut will remain as it is, in Iran's favor. While Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri was clearly trembling at what happened, Nasrallah was calm and confident. Proxy wars need calm leaders - strong leaders who do not break under pressure. This equally applies to other March 14 heavyweights like Walid Jumblatt, whose tone changed 24 hours into the battle, and they only resumed their hard talk against Iran after big words started coming from Washington.
Hariri's original speech was so confused that the Saudi channel al-Arabiyya stopped broadcasting it and only read excerpts from what he said, without showing his recorded speech. When American criticism resumed, and Hezbollah fighters withdrew from the alleys surrounding his house, Hariri was urged to stand up and speak again, this time with a stronger tone, saying, "This has been decided by the Iranian and Syrian regimes that wanted to play a political game in Lebanon's streets. For us nothing has changed. We will not negotiate with someone having a pistol pointed to our heads."
Nadim Shehadi, a Lebanese associate fellow at Chatham House in London, best described the situation, saying, "It is equivalent to an Iranian attack on Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia."
Now that order has been restored, Beirut airport has been reopened (without being renamed) and Hezbollah troops have departed the streets of Beirut, what comes next?
The March 14 Coalition gulped its pride and withdrew the two orders that had sparked the entire crisis, regarding Hezbollah's surveillance and communication system and the discharge of their man, Wadih Shuqayr, from his post as director of airport security. The Iranians were pleased. The Americans and the Saudis were not. All parties have agreed to return to the negotiating table, and were scheduled to meet in Qatar on Friday to find a solution to the vacant presidential seat at Baabda Palace.
Nothing is being said of the arms of Hezbollah, which were used internally for the first time since 1982, or of the current program of the Lebanese government, signed off by none other than Siniora. It pledges to support and protect Hezbollah. Siniora heads a cabinet that wants to implement United Nations Security Council resolution 1559 (calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah) and yet has pledged to provide it with free movement, protection and security on Lebanese territory. Nasrallah claims the political process is a creation of the Americans, yet he had ministers in the Siniora cabinet, and still has a large bloc in parliament.
How can the scars of what happened last week in Beirut be healed so easily, when day and night the media outlets of both Hariri and Nasrallah spread venom against each other? And if either side is a traitor, as their media sources are saying, then how can they sit together in Doha to talk about a common future and nation-building? And finally, what about Iran? Now that it has made its point loud and clear in Beirut, how does it plan on ending the crisis?
One way would be to negotiate a deal with the Americans, pertaining to its nuclear file, and to avoid the imposition of more sanctions through the Security Council. Another way would be to bring peace to Iraq, for the price of getting to keep its victory in Beirut. It still pulls many strings in Iraqi affairs and can use its strong influence within the Iraqi Shi'ite community (with heavyweights like Muqtada al-Sadr) to bring law and order to war-torn districts such as the southern city of Basra and Sadr City in Baghdad.
Or it could do the exact opposite; trade off Hezbollah in exchange for a greater piece of the Iraqi cake. Autonomy for the Shi'ite districts in southern Iraq, with a greater share of oil revenue for example, as its Iraqi proxy, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has been calling for since 2004. When one feels stronger, one often is in a stronger position to bargain, and more able to grant concessions in exchange for trophies. The trophy coming out of Lebanon is still undecided for the leaders of Tehran.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.