Monday, March 13, 2006

Beacon No. 81: Unintended Consequences in Beirut

AS IRAN MOVES TO FILL THE VACUUM LEFT BY SYRIA.


The Times’ Michael Slackman poses this question about post-Syria Lebanon: With Damascus’ military and intelligence forces mostly ejected from the country, who will emerge as Lebanon’s dominant player? Not the Lebanese, to read “As Syria’s Influence in Lebanon Wanes, Iran Moves In”:

Nearly a year ago, not long after the assassination of Rafik Hariri, who was twice prime minister of Lebanon, Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon, unleashing a wave of patriotism here that prompted many to say that the Lebanese might finally be able to take control of their destiny.

But the intensity of the moment and the rush of emotions eclipsed at least one important and largely unanswerable question: With Syria gone, or at least its troops gone, who would fill the power vacuum?

At the time, Iran did not appear to be the answer. But that is what is happening, according to government officials, political leaders and political analysts here.

Iran, long a powerful player in Lebanon, has been able to increase its influence, partly through its ties to the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. That has given Tehran a stronger hand to play in its confrontation with the United States and Europe over its nuclear program.

Slackman continues by noting that Tehran has been courting not just Lebanon’s Shiites, but its other religious factions as well:

[In the past year,] Lebanese officials and academics and religious leaders were increasingly feeling the generosity of the Iranian state, officials said, with invitations to conferences in Iran and offers of aid.

Lebanese officials say that Iran has been careful not to appear heavy-handed, so as not to alienate Sunni, Druse and Christian factions. After years under the fist of Damascus, many people here said that Iranian power was preferable because of geography — Tehran is far away — and because the Iranians appeared to be more intent on winning allegiances, not forcing them.

"Iran is omnipresent in Lebanon, not only with Hezbollah," said Ridwan al-Sayyid, an adviser to the prime minister and a professor of Islamic studies at Lebanese University. "They are strong, not like Syria, but they shape their presence in different ways. They are helping many, many organizations—Sunnis, Shias and Christians. They are benevolent."

It sounds like the Iranian government—however disorganized it seems when anyone at the top opens his mouth—has an organized soft-power program that’s bringing other countries’ leaders and opinion leaders on junkets to Persia.

It’s also telling that Iran is taking pains to be even-handed toward the different Lebanese sects—that “winning allegiances” line is significant, showing Iran knows it can’t just back its Shi’a co-religionists in Lebanon without precipitating another civil war. In that case, the U.S. would likely step in as it did in the early 1980s with strong backing for anyone who wasn’t Hezbollah, and another proxy war would be under way.

This could make for strange bedfellows indeed as the U.S. might seek to aid minority sects like the Alawites—who also happen to rule Syria.

Slackman wraps up by implying that Iran’s increasing soft power in Lebanon is partly a side effect of the U.S. exercise of hard power on Iran’s borders:

This is not the first time that the United States has seen Iran benefit, however unintentionally, from events that were initially regarded as strengthening the Bush administration's hand. With each American military strike in the region, first against the Taliban in Afghanistan and then against Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Iran has found its influence in the region grow as its enemies have been defeated by American military might, political analysts said.

"Iran now has many more cards in confronting the United States than the United States has in confronting Iran," said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

1 comment:

NYkrinDC said...

This seems to me a confirmation of the thesis presented by Tom Barnett that Tehran is the key to continue the big bang's move across the Middle East. As the article shows, the fact that they benefited from our actions against the Taliban, and Hussein demonstrates that we have mutual interests in the region, including the defeat of Takfiri militant sunni Islamists who hate Shiites even more than they do the Great Satan. There's a natural confluence of interests between us, and we should take advantage of it to bring Iran back in from the cold and “soft kill” the theocracy with the ensuing connectivity.

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