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    Middle East
     Jun 5, 2009
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 armed forces.

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 margin.

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 resolved".

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 Ehud Barack.

Similarly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that "if Hezbollah wins, that would be a troubling development, and our deployment will be in kind".

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 Lebanon.

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 Syria.

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 politics.)

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 latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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