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The limits of Hezbollah’s conciliation

Sunday 3 August 2014



As Iran continues to absorb its recent setbacks in Iraq, one place where both the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia appear to be aiming to contain any Sunni-Shiite confrontation is Lebanon. That should be good news.

Hezbollah has toned down its rhetoric of late, preferring to push to the forefront the speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, who has taken on greater prominence in the search for a new president. In Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s speech last week on Jerusalem Day, he spoke about Gaza, steering clear of domestic politics.

Nasrallah also met with the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt last weekend. While Jumblatt represents a small community, he has been active, with Berri, in trying to effect a rapprochement between Sunnis and Shiites. Allegedly, Jumblatt and Nasrallah spoke only about Gaza. But that doesn’t seems very probable after a two-year interruption in their meetings.

At the same time, a Future parliamentarian has noted that the tone of Iran’s new ambassador in Beirut, Mohammad Fathali, was conciliatory in his recent courtesy meeting with former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. What seemed clear to those present was that Fathali was engaging in outreach to moderate Sunnis, not surprising given Sunni radicalization throughout the region.

On the Saudi side things are less clear. And yet the behavior of pro-Saudi politicians in the country, always acutely sensitive to the temper in Riyadh, suggests a similar impetus. Both Nouhad Machnouk, the interior minister, and Ashraf Rifi, the justice minister, have sought to oppose radicalism in the Sunni community, particularly in the north; yet they have also tried to reassure Sunnis by abolishing wanted lists based on flimsy testimony prepared during the period of the Syrian presence.

The move may have had more symbolic value than anything else, but the Saudi decision earlier this year to lift the ban on travel to Lebanon by its citizens was also an indicator of a change in the kingdom. This prompted other Gulf countries to follow suit. The economic impact has been limited, but the decision contributed to increasing optimism in the country, despite the arrest of foreign visitors last month due to terrorism fears.

As the last country with a complicated sectarian mix that has not descended into conflict, Lebanon remains important not only to Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also to the international community. No one wants to see a new sectarian war in Lebanon, in a Middle East that is already veering out of control.

And yet the desire all around to stabilize Lebanon has not affected deeper political objectives and interactions. Hezbollah may be under duress in Syria, but that only makes it more determined to bring in a Lebanese president who will give it the political cover it wants. It seems doubtful that Michel Aoun is that man. The party is looking for predictability and consensus in volatile times, and Aoun assuredly does not promise that.

Nor does Hezbollah appear to be in any hurry to have a new president, given the uncertainties in Syria and Iraq. The ongoing fighting in the Qalamoun area northwest of Damascus shows the grinding nature of the Syrian conflict, and the foolishness of Hezbollah’s belief that a corner has been turned to the advantage of President Bashar Assad’s regime. A corner has indeed been turned, but what looms ahead is something far more worrisome for Hezbollah, Assad and many others.

Lebanese sectarian relations seem manageable for now, which has been reinforced by shared Sunni and Shiite outrage with the Israeli assault on Gaza. When Nasrallah speaks about Palestine, it allows him to revert to his past persona as a unifying Arab figure, rather than as the sectarian leader he was portrayed as after Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian conflict.

But Hamas’ appeal to Hezbollah that it open a Lebanese front against Israel may prove embarrassing. Hezbollah has no desire to enter the Gaza war today when it is so heavily committed in Syria. Nor would this do anything but increase the hardships of a country already forced to deal with over a million Syrian refugees and nearing the precipice economically.

Iran too must see a need to momentarily step back. Its policies and those of its allies in Iraq have proven disastrous. Nor has the Iranian reaction to the offensive of the Islamic State been effective. There now seems to be movement to remove Nouri al-Maliki, but initially he is said to have resisted Iranian entreaties that he withdraw his candidacy for the prime minister’s post. Unless Iraq’s political stability can be consolidated and a reconciliation forged with Sunnis so that they can turn against the Islamic State, it will be nearly impossible to reverse the jihadists’ gains.

But what holds in Iraq holds elsewhere. If the Iranians want to calm tensions with the Sunnis, it will not be enough to do so in Lebanon and even Iraq, while pursuing policies elsewhere, above all in Syria, that enrage Sunnis. Yet Iran has proven unwilling to compromise on its basic political aims in the region. It has adhered to the power principle, where it will stop pushing only when it meets equal resistance from its foes.

Therefore, while Lebanon may benefit from an Iranian (and a Saudi) desire to reduce tensions, this will be precarious for as long as Tehran refuses to downscale its regional ambitions, which will only provoke harsher Sunni counter-reactions.

Lebanon has many shortcomings, but one reason why it has managed until now to avoid the plights of Syria and Iraq is that its very imperfect system is yet based on sectarian compromise. Iran and Hezbollah must grasp that lesson, or else their expedient efforts to placate Sunnis will all be for nothing.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.


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