Five months after its most recent national elections, Lebanon has a new government. The new government amounts to a coalition between Saad Hariri’s March 14 movement, on one side, and Hizballah’s March 8 movement (which has close relations with Iran and Syria), on the other. It effectively preserves Hizballah’s “veto” over any significant government decisions.
• Hariri will become Prime Minister and his group will take 15 seats in the cabinet.
• Hizballah and its allies will hold 10 seats.
• Lebanon’s President, Michel Suleiman—who strongly supports Hizballah’s participation in a unity government—will name five cabinet members.
As usual, Lebanese politics is never about purely Lebanese issues. Rather, Lebanese politics is, in many ways, an arena in which broader regional divides play out.
• In this regard, Lebanon’s June elections were wrapped up with an ongoing struggle between Saudi Arabia, on the one hand, and Iran and Syria, on the other, for regional influence.
• In this context, the announcement of a new Lebanese government is a tacit acknowledgment – by March 14 and its chief external supporter, Saudi Arabia – of Iran’s position in Lebanon.
Against this backdrop, three points deserve special attention.
First, the view that the March 14 movement “beat Hizballah” and that it would be able to form a government on its own after the June elections was never grounded in reality. If one simply goes by the number of votes cast for March 14 and March 8, March 14 did not “win” the elections – Hizballah and its allies received roughly 55 percent of the votes cast across Lebanon, while March 14 received roughly 45 percent. However – thanks in no small part to Saudi money that enabled March 14 to move its supporters into swing constituencies and fly in sympathetic expatriates to participate in the June elections – Hariri’s group won a majority of the seats in parliament. (The March 14 movement is routinely romanticized in the West as champions of democracy, but, if you suggest to a Hariri supporter that Lebanon adopt “one man, one vote” democracy, your image of March 14 as truly democratic will be quickly brought back to earth. The only real champion of “one person – including women – one vote” democracy in Lebanon today is Hizballah.) Since Hizballah won a larger share of popular support than March 14, it was inevitable that no government could be formed which would exclude them.
Second, Hizballah was never going to agree to join a “national unity” government in an atmosphere of hostility toward Iran and Syria. Saudi intervention in the June elections was meant to prevent Hizballah from winning, but it was also part of a broader Saudi effort to “push back” against what many in Riyadh see as rising Iranian influence in Lebanon, stemming from Tehran’s ties to Hizballah, and growing Shi’a influence in regional politics. From an Iranian and Syrian perspective, Saudi intervention in the elections violated understandings that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had reached with Saudi King Abdallah to let the electoral process play out and to cooperate afterwards in helping their respective Lebanese allies create a national unity government. Under these circumstances, neither Hizballah, Syria, nor Iran was inclined to facilitate the creation of a unity government without a clear acknowledgment – by March 14 and Saudi Arabia – of their interests and prerogatives, both in Lebanon and regionally. When we were last in Beirut and Damascus in July – it was clear that everyone knew then what the terms of reference for a unity government would be. But the deal could not be struck until a different regional context had been created.
Third, after five months of futile politicking, Saudi Arabia has now acknowledged the interests and prerogatives of Syria – and through Syria, of Iran as well – in Lebanese politics. This acknowledgment came, most vividly, with Saudi King Abdallah’s visit to Syria last month – a dramatic reversal after years of Saudi efforts to isolate and press Assad following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (Saad’s father) in 2005 and a de facto Saudi boycott of the Arab League in Damascus last year. Saudi Arabia calculates that it must now allow Syria to re-establish its traditionally important role in inter-Arab politics – without any meaningful reduction in Syrian ties to the Islamic Republic.
Iran’s rising influence in the Middle East flows, to a large degree, from its support for groups like Hizballah and HAMAS that significant portions of local populations see as their legitimate representatives and as the only political forces engaged in serious resistance to U.S. and Israeli hegemony in the region. Bashar al-Assad has not allowed Arab allies of the United States to use a restrictive interpretation of Arab solidarity to undermine his ties to the Islamic Republic and Iranian-backed forces of resistance—ties that cut across Arab-Persian and Sunni-Shi’a divides. This is a testament to Assad’s diplomatic acumen, which contradicts both the facile stereotypes of the Syrian leader that took hold in the West after Hariri’s assassination and expectations that he was in “over his head”. It is also a testament to Iran’s indispensability to settlements of the Middle East’s core conflicts, including those in Lebanon and Palestine.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett