Five days before the crucial elections in Iran on June 12, voters go to the polls in another Middle East country: Lebanon. The stakes in Lebanon are high, since it’s looking more and more likely that Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite fundamentalist group, and its allies will win a majority and take control of the government in Beirut. That would create a fundamental choice for the Obama administration: does the United States continue to have contact with, and send military aid to, a Lebanese government controlled by Israel’s implacable foe?
Last year, in a power-sharing deal brokered by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, Hezbollah was given a share of power in the Lebanese state proportional to its strength in parliament and on the ground, after massive pro-Hezbollah demonstrations rocked the country.
Expect a lot of outside meddling in Lebanon during the next two weeks — on all sides.
An early shot was fired this week from Germany, where Der Spiegel, the conservative weekly magazine, revealed that investigators probing the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri have concluded that Hezbollah, and not Syria, is responsible for the spectacular bombing that killed Hariri, a pro-Western billionaire with close ties to France and Saudi Arabia. (Hariri’s son, Saad Hariri, is leading the anti-Hezbollah coalition in the June 7 election.)
What’s interesting about the Der Spiegel exclusive, if true, is not only that it exonerates Syria, but that it blames Hezbollah. The magazine reports that the UN special tribunal in the case intended to withhold its conclusion until late June, i.e., until after the election. The fact that it is now being reported makes the Spiegel report seem like a calculated leak designed to undercut Hezbollah’s election chances.
Reports the magazine:
Spiegel has learned from sources close to the tribunal and verified by examining internal documents, that the Hariri case is about to take a sensational turn. Intensive investigations in Lebanon are all pointing to a new conclusion: that it was not the Syrians, but instead special forces of the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah (“Party of God”) that planned and executed the diabolical attack. Tribunal chief prosecutor Bellemare and his judges apparently want to hold back this information, of which they been aware for about a month. What are they afraid of?
That’s a good question — “What are they afraid of?” — but another good question is: what’s the motive of the people who leaked the super-secret conclusion? (And two other questions: is the Der Spiegel report correct that the UN panel has concluded that Hezbollah killed Hariri? And, if they have concluded that, is their conclusion true?)
Writing in the Washington Times, former Dick Cheney aide John Hannah, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel thinktank with neoconservative ties, rings every alarm bell he can reach:
Make no mistake: Hezbollah’s triumph would constitute a major U.S. defeat. Despite the Obama administration’s overtures to Iran, it remains the case that across the Middle East, the battle for Lebanon is understood as part of a much larger struggle for power being waged by Washington and Tehran.
The formal collapse of the Cedar Revolution would send shockwaves throughout the region, providing powerful confirmation of Iran’s ascendancy and America’s decline. It would dramatically embolden Teheran at a time when Washington hopes to negotiate an end to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, its support for terrorism and its escalating efforts — frequently using Hezbollah operatives — to subvert pro-U.S. governments across the Arab world from Iraq to Egypt to Morocco.
From Iraq to Morocco! Whew! Talk about the Domino Theory. In fact, the Hezbollah victory would do nothing of the kind, except that it would ratify the democratic expression of what the Lebanese people want. If Hezbollah does win, its victory will be marginal, only a few points, and Lebanese politics will continue to be balanced on a knife’s edge, complicated by the presence of armed militias and ethnic warlords across the political spectrum.
America’s view of the Lebanon election is pretty clear. Recently, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have made high-profile visits to Beirut to boost the chances of the Hariri-led coalition. No doubt, pro-American, conservative Sunni countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt are pouring millions of dollars into the anti-Hezbollah effort, while Iran is doing the same — along with Syria — for the other side.
Meanwhile, less might be at stake than Hannah suggests. As the Jerusalem Post notes, Hezbollah will be a power in Lebanon whether it wins or loses:
Even if Hizbullah loses the upcoming election, it will continue to control Lebanon. It is the strongest force in Lebanon by far, and the country’s Shi’ite community is growing. The Christians in the North have been weakened, and the Druse in the central region will strike a deal with anyone who furthers their interests. Nobody will separate Hizbullah from its weapons, and the group will continue to strengthen and deepen its control of Lebanon.
What’s really at stake is not Hezbollah’s power and its ability to send dominos toppling, but its international credibility — and the crucial question of whether the United States will (a) deal with a Hezbollah-controlled government or (b) treat it like Hamas, which was duly elected in the Palestinian territories and then quarantined by the United States.
As the New York Times reports today, Hezbollah is already gaining legitimacy:
Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group, has talked with the International Monetary Fund and the European Union about continued financial support to Lebanon in the event the group’s political alliance wins the June 7 parliamentary elections, Hezbollah officials said Wednesday.
In Beirut last week, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. said future American support to Lebanon, which includes military aid, would depend on the elections’ outcome.
European governments have not issued any such veiled threats, and Western leaders have recently shown a greater willingness to engage in political dialogue with Hezbollah’s patrons, Iran and Syria. Britain’s Foreign Office said in March that it would re-establish relations with Hezbollah’s political wing.
My guess: if Hezbollah wins, the Obama administration will figure out a way to finesse its dislike of the group, hold its nose, and continue to support the Lebanese government. To the utter consternation of John Hannah, the neoconservatives, the Israel lobby, and Israel’s new right-wing government.
Interestingly, the elections come just two days after President Obama delivers a major speech in Cairo aimed at “re-booting” US relations with the Muslim world. Isolating Hezbollah, should it win a free and fair vote — at least, as free and fair as Lebanon can produce! — won’t help with the rebooting, unless Obama’s main audience is the royal family of Saudi Arabia.