US steadfast against Hezbollah
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
On the eve of critical national elections in fragile Lebanon on Sunday, United
States President Barack Obama has opened a new chapter in his quest for
"dialogue with the Muslim world". This, inevitably, dictates the US's respect
for the results of the elections, even if that means the victory of Hezbollah,
a mass-based guerrilla organization that continues to remain on the US
government's terrorist list.
In that event, short of fine-tuning its policy and making the necessary
adjustments with respect to the terrorist label for Hezbollah, the Obama
administration may have no choice but to cut US aid to Lebanon, particularly
military aid - since 2005, the US has given US$250 million to the Lebanese
United States Vice President Joseph Biden, in his recent Beirut
visit, explicitly linked the future of US assistance to the outcome of the
parliamentary elections, where the Hezbollah-led bloc that includes Christian
Michel Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), is expected to win by a narrow
And in an interview with the Arabic paper al-Huryat, US Central Command chief
General David Petraeus stated categorically that the Obama administration
considered Hezbollah a "terrorist organization" and added that "Hezbollah's
justification for existence will become void if the Palestinian cause is
The US is likely, then, to commit the same error it made with respect to the
Palestinian elections in January 2006 that were dominated by Hamas, another
group with which the US is loathe to deal.
The majority of Lebanon's Shi'ites, who comprise roughly 35% of the population,
may disagree with Petraeus' description, in light of Hezbollah's net
contribution to their political empowerment. There is also its role as "a major
provider of social services, operating schools, hospitals and agricultural
services for thousands of Lebanese Shi'ites", to quote a recent report on
Hezbollah by the US Council on Foreign Relations.
Petraeus' error is precisely in overlooking the internal dynamics in Lebanon
that have historically been conducive to Hezbollah's rising star.
For its part, Israel is doing all it can to influence the outcome of elections,
by staging a major military drill near Lebanon's borders. This has as a result
put Lebanon's army on the highest alert. Israel has also issued dire warnings
that should Hezbollah win, "Lebanon will expose itself to the might of the
Israeli army more than any time in the past", to quote Israeli Defense Minister
Similarly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that "if Hezbollah
wins, that would be a troubling development, and our deployment will be in
Hezbollah is up against the anti-Syrian coalition led by Sunni Muslim Saad
al-Hariri, which gained a majority in parliament in 2005 elections. The
alliance, named March 14, includes Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Christian
leaders Samir Geagea and Amin Gemayel. The current majority coalition has 70
seats in parliament and the minority, including Hezbollah, has 58.
Israel, it appears, is not wasting any time in cultivating the seeds of a
future conflict with Lebanon, where a military defeat for a
Hezbollah-controlled government would be devastating to Hezbollah's political
fortunes. It has recently been revealed by former Israeli chief of staff
General Dan Halutz that Israel failed to assassinate Hezbollah's political
leader, Hassan Nasrallah, during the 2006 Lebanon war.
This, together with the Lebanese government's arrest of nine Lebanese who were
spying for Israel's Mossad, reflects the basic tenor of Israel's
one-dimensional security approach toward the evolving political developments in
Conspicuously absent in the US and Israeli calculations about the political and
geostrategic implications of a Hezbollah victory is any appreciation of how
this may actually deepen Hezbollah's moderation.
Transformed over time from a "non-state" actor into a formidable political
party with direct representation in the Lebanese government, Hezbollah is less
a "state-within-state" in Lebanon's complex political system and more an
integral part of it. The sooner the US, the European Union and above all Israel
come to terms with this important evolving reality and adopt the necessary
changes, the better, for the sake of regional peace.
Unfortunately, a number of Western pundits paint a Hezbollah victory as a
"defeat for the US" as well as Saudi Arabia, and a solid "victory" for Iran and
However, there are several problems with such analyses.
First, electoral victory is one thing, actual changes in the balance of forces
in Lebanon's sectarian politics is quite another. What is more, it is far from
given that a governmental victory for Hezbollah will not have negative
side-effects on its political and military prowess as a movement.
Indeed, an Hezbollah victory may well translate into new fetters for its
paramilitary wing that has so far successfully resisted both the calls for its
disarmament as well as its integration into the national army. A minor
"security trap" opened by the elections results favoring Hezbollah exists. That
explains some rudimentary ambivalence on the part of its leadership over being
at the helm of government until 2013.
Second, a Hezbollah victory could further complicate the delicate relationship
between its military forces and the upgraded United Nations Interim Force in
Lebanon, as well as its relations with some European powers. These include
Germany, which has contributed to the multinational Maritime Task Force
supporting the Lebanese navy's control of the seaways. The mandate for this
task force runs out in December and its extension now hinges on the
post-election political makeup in Lebanon.
Third, assuming that a winning Hezbollah fails to form a government of national
unity, in light of the torpedo effect of an incendiary report by the German
weekly Der Spiegel that blames Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of the
former prime minister Rafik Hariri, the resulting sectarian nature of the
government would definitely exacerbate the country's political rifts. This
would render more difficult a resumption of "all-party talks" favored by
Hezbollah, particularly if the US and its Western allies impose a policy of
embargo and isolation.
In that case, Iran would incur additional financial costs as it would need to
increase its foreign aid to a Tehran-friendly regime - not a pleasant prospect
for a country that is experiencing economic troubles at home.
For now, Iran's hope is that Hezbollah's public assurances about forming a
government of national unity, or Hezbollah politicians' current dialogue with
the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank for future assistance
to Lebanon, will bear fruit. And relatedly, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf
states will not cease their financial support of the Lebanese government after
the elections; at stake are a US$11 million IMF loan and $84 million in yearly
assistance by the European Union.
To consolidate their gains, Hezbollah leaders must make extra efforts in
assuring the international community that, contrary to current talk of a "US
defeat" caused by a Hezbollah victory, Hezbollah itself does not interpret it
this way. Hezbollah believes it can be a factor for regional stability. Israeli
Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Salom has said that Hezbollah victory would
"constitute a danger to regional and international stability".
Hezbollah has also complained that the US ambassador to Lebanon, Michele
Sisson, has "meddled" in Lebanon's affairs by "leading all efforts to finalize
the electoral tickets for the March 14 bloc", to quote an article on
Hezbollah's al-Manar network.
The US is clearly playing a zero-sum game with regard to Hezbollah. This raises
the question of how the US can possibly engage with Iran, a major regional
power, short of engaging with the powerful pro-Iran Hezbollah that is now
poised to control the government in Beirut. (Even short of victory, Hezbollah,
which presently has veto power over cabinet ministers per a 2008 agreement,
will continue to wield tremendous influence in Lebanon's sectarian-based
The annual US Department of State terrorism reports scold Iran as a
"terror-sponsoring state", citing its support for "terrorist organizations"
such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
A future removal of Hezbollah from the US terror list would go a long way in
removing "rogue state" Iran from the same list, a sine qua non for
diplomatic normalization between Washington and Tehran.
Unfortunately, despite its innovation of a "Muslim dialogue", the Obama
administration is ill-prepared to deal with the consequences of Lebanon's
parliamentary elections as these are painted in black and white "geo-strategic"
semantics that distort rather than illuminate a complex reality.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.