This project has faced resistance and it is worth considering its implications, not just for those behind it, but also for the future of Iraq and Lebanon. In Iraq, there is Shiite resistance to the effort to legitimize the Iranian model and the PMUs at the expense of the Iraqi army. In Lebanon, there is governmental and popular resistance to Hezbollah’s insistence on imposing its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army, not just from Prime Minister Saad Hariri but also President Michel Aoun, who has emphasized the Lebanese army as the leading legitimate protector of Lebanon. Tehran in the meantime fears that Iraqi-Gulf rapprochement could undermine its project, while it sees Lebanon as a necessary bridge to rehabilitate Syria in the Arab world and then internationally.
In this regard, US-Russian partnership in Syria and Iraq is key. In Lebanon, there is an international decision to prevent a security collapse and to empower the army to play its conventional role without partnership with Hezbollah in any legitimacy. Instead, there is a bid to head off any attempt by Hezbollah to replicate the Iranian model in Lebanon.
Tehran’s attempts to export its regime and its revolution with surrogate versions of the Revolutionary Guards are facing resistance, but new partnerships are needed to ensure that they fail.
In Iraq, there is US-Russian accord to resist the perpetuation of the IRGC model through the PMUs. The Gulf element in this accord has emerged in the rapprochement with Iraq’s Shiite leaders, which has prompted Iran to dispatch high-level delegates to Baghdad on an urgent mission. It has also emerged in a recent Saudi decision to resume interest in Lebanon’s developments. Despite all the oneupmanship and rhetoric regarding who liberated Lebanese territory from Daesh in the barrens of Arsal, Al-Qaa and Ras Baalbeck, what happened was that the Lebanese army has gained unprecedented legitimacy, because for the first time it acted proactively rather than reactively.
One senior Lebanese official said this legitimacy is now realistic, not emotional. He said that Hezbollah, despite all its insistence, has not obtained legitimacy because “the president has a distinguished, profound, emotional and practical relationship with the army. His face lights up when the army is mentioned, and nothing will dissuade him from giving priority to the army. The army is strong and has national legitimacy as a result of the battle it fought in Ras Baalbeck and Al-Qaa.”
Washington has a keen interest in the Lebanese army and wants it safeguarded without the kind of partnership Hezbollah is desperate to impose. Hezbollah has failed to get what it wants despite all its lobbying and media machinery going into overdrive. The army has never and will never say that Hezbollah shares its legitimacy. This prevents Hezbollah from replicating the IRGC model in Lebanon, and from becoming the Lebanese IRGC.
The other key prong of Hezbollah’s strategy is facilitating a “reunion” between the government of Syria and Lebanon, not just through secret visits such as the ones its leaders have undertaken in the past years as fully fledged allies, but through an official and public “marriage” that would rehabilitate Syria’s Arab legitimacy through the Lebanese gateway.
The US and Saudi Arabia are in agreement over refusing Hezbollah’s bid to impose its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army. They make the distinction between a de-facto partnership with Hezbollah in the war against Daesh in Syria, and Hezbollah’s quest for legitimacy as a parallel IRGC-like entity. Washington is determined for the Lebanese state to deliver on its pledge that there would be no partnership between the army and Hezbollah. US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley adopted a firm position regarding the mandate of the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon and the implementation to the letter of Resolution 1701, affirming the total separation between the legitimacy of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah’s peculiar status.
The Trump administration has had a vague policy on Syria in terms of its silent consent to Iranian expansion in Daesh-held territory, part of the geography of its arc, corridor or crescent linking Tehran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. This stance could be temporary tactics, imposed by the long-term grand strategy, or it could be a result of the US confusion that has long benefited Tehran. It is premature to determine this at this juncture.
Clearly, however, Iran remains part of the “continuation of unrest in the Middle East rather than stability in the region,” as one veteran political analyst put it. The proponents of this view say that the Americans will not allow Iran to gain a legitimate foothold on the Mediterranean. Therefore, Iran will remain a source of instability and Lebanon will remain forbidden ammunition. These voices say that US-Russian accord on removing militias from Syria will be executed within a year or two, after which Hezbollah will return to Lebanon with many question marks surrounding its role there. They say Iran does not intend to open the south Lebanese front with Israel, which has found itself relieved by the Syrian war, with its hold on the Golan secured. Either this will be translated through some kind of truce that will spare Lebanon or it could lead Hezbollah to compensate for its resistance against Israel credentials by imposing its agenda on the Lebanese home front.
Things are different on many levels in Iraq. Iraq is more important in the Iranian-Gulf balance of power than Lebanon is in the Iranian-Israeli balance of power, which has been suspended with the consent of both sides as well as the US and Russia. Iraq today is at the center of the storm of partition, which Washington and Moscow claim they oppose. Both agree on the priority of the regular army over the Iranian-sponsored PMUs. More important, however, is the decision of Iraq’s Shiite Arabs, who do not accept the idea of the Iranian model dominating their lives. This camp is behind a project for restoring Iraq’s central position in the Arab bloc and vice versa.
Tehran is concerned by this. This is why it has sought to contain the damage caused by the practices and projects of the IRGC, dispatching to Baghdad this week Expediency Discernment Council Chairman Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi — an Iraqi by birth — and his deputy Mohsen Rezai to repair the Shiite alliance in Baghdad. Iran is also equally concerned by the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iraqi Shiite leaders, such as Prime Minister Haider Abadi and cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr.
The Iranian side has often boasted of being a reliable partner and ally, unlike the inconsistent form of partnership and alliance between the US and the Gulf, as it sees it. Iran is betting on some kind of weakness afflicting the new Gulf push to open a new page with Iraq, and the recent enthusiasm shown for influencing Lebanon to contain Hezbollah. There is a history that supports Iran’s bets and boasts, in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. If Gulf diplomacy decides to contain the damage resulting from the impression that it is impatient and late to act, it must invest in a strategy to counter Iran’s claims and thwart the bet that the Gulf push in Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon will eventually cool down. Partnerships are difficult, but there is a dire need for new kinds of partnerships different from the ones that have given the impression they were unbalanced and transient.
Preempting the attempts to create surrogates for conventional Arab armies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Syria is of paramount importance, because if successful, these attempts will mean the exportation of the Iranian revolution and regime in Tehran to the Arab world.
• Raghida Dergham is a columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is the founder and executive chairman of Beirut Institute. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an honorary fellow at the Foreign Policy Association and has served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum. Twitter: @RaghidaDergham
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.