Countdown to a New Lebanon Crisis: Iran Sends a Signal to Obama through Beirut


Vol. 10, No. 22    January 13, 2011

    • On January 12, 2011, just as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House, the pro-Iranian Hizbullah forced a collapse of the Lebanese government. Ten of its ministers held a press conference announcing their decision in Beirut that was broadcast live on Lebanese television during the Obama-Hariri summit.
    • The Hizbullah leadership was seeking to pre-empt the publication of the decision of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is expected to charge that senior Hizbullah members were involved in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri.
    • The STL was formed as the result of a request by the Lebanese government to the UN in December 2005. The STL was then established pursuant to UN Security Council Resolutions 1664 and 1757; the latter resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which is generally reserved for acts of aggression.
    • The main motivation of Hizbullah was linked to Hariri’s refusal to respond to its repeated demands to announce that the STL was illegitimate and its decisions do not obligate the Lebanese government. Hizbullah was not alone inmaking demands on the Lebanese government regarding the STL.The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Kamenei, who rarely expresses his views on internal Lebanese affairs, nonetheless stated: “This tribunal is receiving orders from elsewhere and whatever ruling it hands down is null and void.”
    • Iran is signaling to the Obama administration, and to the West as a whole, that the main political developments in Lebanon are being decided today in Tehran and not in Washington. Failure to respond to thisIranian-sponsored provocation will only invite further adventurism on the part of the regime in Tehran elsewhere in the region, as it seeks to further establish its hegemony in the Middle East.

On January 12, 2011, just as Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House, the pro-Iranian Hizbullah forced a collapse of the Lebanese government. Ten of the Hizbullah-aligned ministers and one other resigned. The ministers held a press conference announcing their decision in Beirut that was broadcast live on Lebanese television during the Obama-Hariri summit. Hizbullah turned to Lebanon’s president, Michel Suleiman, demanding that he immediately choose a new Sunni leader to replace Hariri, who will form a new government.   Suleiman subsequently asked Hariri to head a caretaker government.

The Hizbullah leadership was seeking to pre-empt the publication of the decision of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is expected to charge that senior Hizbullah members were involved in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, father of the current prime minister. International indictments would also be issued. The STL was formed as the result of a request by the Lebanese government to the UN in December 2005. The STL was then established pursuant to UN Security Council Resolutions 1664 and 1757; the latter resolution was adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which is generally reserved for acts of aggression.

Hizbullah chose to collapse the Lebanese government at that moment in order to portray Prime Minister Saad Hariri as an American puppet. Yet the main motivation of Hizbullah was linked to Hariri’s refusal to respond to its repeated demands to announce that the STL was illegitimate and that its decisions do not obligate the Lebanese government. Whether Hizbullah can force the Lebanese system to form a new government before the STL issues its conclusions is questionable. At the very least, Hizbullah’s action will forestall any further moves to support the STL, since these would require a 2/3 majority of the 30-man Lebanese government, which can no longer be reached following the wave of resignations.

Hizbullah was not alone in making demands on the Lebanese government regarding the STL. The Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Kamenei, who rarely expresses his views on internal Lebanese affairs, nonetheless stated during a meeting in Tehran with the Emir of Qatar in December 2010: “This tribunal is receiving orders from elsewhere and whatever ruling it hands down is null and void.”1 In his view, the tribunal was being controlled by other powers who were encroaching on Lebanon and undermining it. The Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, was explicit on this point during this past week: “U.S. intervention has resulted in the failure of efforts to bring peace and stability to Lebanon.” 2

Iran had multiple interests at stake. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia and Syria had been coordinating to head off a new Lebanese crisis. The two countries had reportedly taken the position that the decisions of the STL should be made public. Iran firmly objected and preferred to see Syria take its position of complete rejection of the STL.  Furthermore, it did not want to see its main regional partner get drawn into Saudi Arabia’s orbit on this matter. Collapsing the Lebanese government was one way for Iran to put the final nail in the coffin of the Saudi-Syrian initiative.3

There is a tendency in the West to underestimate the Iranian role in Hizbullah decision-making. But it should be remembered that Hizbullah was created in the offices of the Iranian ambassador to Syria, Ali Akbar Mohtashemi in 1982. Deputy Secretary-General of Hizbullah, Sheikh Naim Qassem, admitted in 2007 that Hizbullah does not pursue its own policy but rather submits to the authority of the Iranian leadership, which instructs it even on military-operative issues. This is  based on the ideology of the Iranian Islamic regime, set forth by Ayatollah Khomeini, whose key principle is the rule of the jurisprudent (vilayat al-faqih), the title presently used by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.4

What are the implications of this new crisis in Lebanon as it begins to unfold? First, Iran is signaling to the Obama administration, and to the West as a whole, that the main political developments in Lebanon are being decided today in Tehran and not in Washington. From Iran’s viewpoint, Hariri can sit in the center of American power in the White House, but it is Iran, though Hizbullah, that decides what is happening on the ground. Iran is testing U.S. power and determination and Middle East states are closely following the outcome.

There is a view that Iran feels it has more freedom of action in Lebanon today than it did in the past: the Obama administration has not embraced the anti-Hizbullah March 14 movement to the same extent as the Bush administration. Meanwhile, Iran’s other major ally in Lebanon, Syria, has restored much of the power and influence it lost a number of years ago when it was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanese territory.5

Hizbullah has also produced a fragile situation that could easily get out of control. Under present conditions, even an unimportant incident could spark a major political firestorm in the streets of Beirut that will bring about the complete collapse of Lebanon’s central government.

The present situation Hizbullah has created marks the beginning of the countdown to a much bigger crisis that will enable both Hizbullah and its Iranian sponsors to complete their takeover of the Lebanese state.

The U.S. and its Western allies, particularly France, have an opportunity to demonstrate their resolve to block Iranian expansionism in the Middle East by taking back the reins of what is transpiring in Lebanon today. They can also serve the interests of international justice by ensuring that the STL actually moves against the murderers of Hariri. But a failure to respond to this Iranian-sponsored provocation will only invite further adventurism on the part of the regime in Tehran elsewhere in the region as it seeks to further establish its hegemony in the Middle East.  It will also reward Hizbullah, which remains one of the most dangerous international terrorist organizations targeting the West.

 

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Notes

 

1. “Khameini Gests Involved,” NowLebanon, December 21, 2010.

2. “U.S. Intervention Has Undermined Lebanon’s Stability,” MNA, January 12, 2011.

3. Jumana Al Tamini, “Saudi-Syria Mediation Efforts Fail,” GulfNews.com, January 13, 2011.

4. “Hezbollah’s Policy of Terrorist Operations against Israel Requires Jurisprudent Permission of the Iranian Leadership,” Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Israel Intelligence Heritage & Commemoration Center (IICC), April 29, 2007,

http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/ malam_multimedia/English/eng_n/html/hezbollah_e0407.htm.

5. Nada Bakri,”Hezbollah Forces Collapse of Lebanese Government” New York Times, January 12, 2011, http://gulfnews.com/news/region/lebanon/saudi-syria-mediation-efforts-fail-1.745502.

 

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Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

About Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira

Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Military Secretary to the Prime Minister and as Israel Foreign Ministry chief of staff. He edited the Jerusalem Center eBook Iran: From Regional Challenge to Global Threat.