The Lebanese economy is collapsing, and the risk of conflict is rising—but Washington has failed to grasp why Iranian influence is spreading or the measures needed to stop it.
BY ALI HASHEM
Lebanon is in crisis. On the face of it, that’s nothing new. I’ve lived all of my 40 years with the knowledge that my country is in crisis. Invasions, civil war, local unrest, assassinations, foreign occupation, economic fragility, you name it—but it was never as bad as today.
In a matter of days, a number of crisis-related suicides have been reported; one man shot himself outside a cafe in busy Beirut Street, in full view of customers and passersby. Things have become surreal. It’s not only that people can’t work, or have lost their savings, or can’t afford to buy anything; these hardships are significant, but we’ve been through such times before. The difference is that today’s Lebanese cannot dream of a better tomorrow. Only those who’ve been forced to abandon the country know what this means.
In 2005, in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a new player emerged on the political scene. Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the United States but celebrated by many Lebanese as the resistance force that in 2000 liberated south Lebanon from Israeli occupation, took its first seats in the national cabinet. Conventional wisdom holds that Hezbollah is an ideological offshoot of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, but it’s important to recognize that the group isn’t a proxy but more of an organic extension of the dominant ideology within Iran—with members who are indigenous Lebanese. Thus, it can be seen as a hybrid, with a status comparable to that of communist parties around the world during the Cold War era.
But Lebanon isn’t like other countries; its sectarian divides are beyond bridging, with most of its citizens loyal to their sects above anything else. The current status quo is a legacy of the fragmentation that has flourished over decades in the absence of a strong central government.
During the first half of the 20th century, feudal lords represented the sects, and people pledged loyalty to them. But since the late 1960s, some feudal fiefdoms transformed into political parties, while others were toppled by angry peasants who became masters to their former rulers—the Shiites of Lebanon are one example. The rise of political Shiism in the wake of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 marked the peak of the transformation with the formation of Hezbollah. Now, in days of great misery and need, people know where to turn if they want to survive.
As part of the U.S. government’s campaign of maximum pressure on Iran, and because of Hezbollah’s footprint, maximum economic pressure is being brought to bear on Lebanon. To say this has sent Lebanon into free fall is an understatement: Banks are empty of dollars, power cuts in the capital are widespread, businesses are closing their doors for lack of customers, and the dollar value of the national minimum wage has fallen from around $450 per month to $80 as of this writing. A government minister whose monthly salary a few months ago was around $8,500 today earns roughly $1,500. Much the same can be said of the country’s president, speaker, and prime minister—and they are the fortunate ones.
But the weakening of the state will in no way weaken Hezbollah, which is armed to the teeth and coming off an eight-year adventure in Syria, which it views as a great success. The more the country dips into chaos, the more people will cling to their sects, whose leaders will become de facto rulers.
The predictable future of a country now in tatters consists not of civil war but of zones of local unrest and violence; in the absence of a functioning state, any authority with the potential to stem the chaos will be the people’s preferred authority.
This is true for each and every faction exerting control of its areas: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt will consolidate his power in Mount Lebanon, Sunni former Prime Minister Saad Hariri in Sunni areas, the various Christian leaders in their areas of influence, and, of course, Hezbollah will consolidate power in southern Lebanon and on the Israeli border, Beirut’s southern suburbs, and Bekaa to the east, on the Syrian border. At the same time, a regional solution to the situation is emerging: Iran, too, will assert its power, positioning itself as a savior of the Shiite community. After all, Lebanon isn’t Venezuela. There’s no need to cross the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean to deliver food, medicine, fuel, and other supplies.
The more dire the crisis gets, the greater the likelihood that Lebanon will be drawn into Iran’s list of protected satellites. Tehran has already offered to sell oil and gasoline to the Lebanese government in Lebanese pounds—thereby saving the Lebanese government from the burden of rampant currency devaluation and on several past occasions its leaders have vowed that, if the Lebanese authorities just say the word, they would provide Lebanon with electricity.
The more the United States ratchets up its pressure on Lebanon, the more opportunities will open up for Iran to exert power and influence in the disintegrating state. This will not necessarily come via the Iranian government; influence could flow directly through Hezbollah, which has vowed not to allow Shiites in Lebanon to die of hunger. The United States’ maximum pressure strategy could therefore easily play into the hands of its avowed enemy.
This appears to be a concern in Washington. The remarks by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on preventing Iran from selling oil to Lebanon reflects that worry. Yet with Lebanon quickly becoming a failed state, there will be few options. That means the idea of creating a parallel economy for the sanctioned countries is gaining steam. It’s an idea Iran seems to fancy despite the economic hardships it’s suffering under the maximum pressure strategy.
During an on-the-record briefing with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Joel Rayburn at the Center for Global Policy, I presented this narrative; the answer I received was that the Iranians can’t exert such power, because they don’t have the money and resources to do it. But this might not be the case on the ground. Tehran might be ready to take the pain in the short term to solidify its position.
Iran, in the cases of Lebanon and Syria, is offering to accept payment in local currencies because it can make use of the local currencies to finance both its operations in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This would make a big difference for both the Lebanese government’s bottom line and Iran’s regional operations.
What the U.S. government has failed to grasp over the past four decades of its fight with Iran in a country like Lebanon is the fact that Iranian influence was bred organically in areas where Shiites are a majority.
Put simply, the view in many Shiite households in southern Lebanon, Bekaa, and southern Beirut is that a weaker Iran would necessarily have an impact on them, so despite all the grievances that they may have against Iran or Hezbollah, both became central to the collective thinking of the sect’s position in the context of the sectarian struggle in the region.
Because of this, it’s very unlikely that the United States could curb Iran’s role in Lebanon. Previous attempts to empower civil society within the Shiite community didn’t succeed—and even a war can’t create a different reality without sinking the country into a worse situation.
However, there are still options to consider limiting Iran’s reach in Lebanon. A different U.S. approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict would help. This is not a marginal factor at all, especially after Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century deprived the U.S. government of any remaining capability to reach to the hearts and minds of the people on this side of the borders.
There’s also the possibility of future U.S.-Iranian detente; a new deal could be a savior for Lebanon. That said, there’s not much optimism in Tehran over the reviving of the nuclear deal within the framework of 2015 agreement even if presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden came to power; decision-makers in Tehran are aiming at creating a new de facto regional order that would enable them to sit at a future U.S. administration’s negotiating table with some additional cards to play. But such a negotiation depends on both Tehran’s and Washington’s willingness to expand the scope of talks. A deal that fails to take into consideration all the pending issues between the United States and Iran will only make things worse in areas where the countries’ interests collide.
Few options remain for the Lebanese under such circumstances. Even those who believe a civil war might be the solution to the crisis—and there are quite a few—know full well that even this bloody option is out of the question given the world financial crisis and the desire of no one to bankroll a civil war from which Hezbollah would likely emerge the winner. The Syrian example is fresh in memory, and Lebanon is 17 times smaller than its neighbor.
Lebanon should not be squeezed and suffocated through a pressure campaign that will only make the Shiites more Shiite and less Lebanese—and the Sunnis, Druze, and Christians, too. It will be tempting for them to take the easier route and leave the country. For individuals, it may be easier to flee. But a nation can’t flee itself.
Ali Hashem is a research affiliate at the Centre for Islamic and West Asian Studies, Royal Holloway, University of London. His research focuses on the Middle East with an emphasis on digital diplomacy, Iran, Lebanon, and Iraq politics. He is a journalist who has covered the region for the past 15 years.