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Beirut must brace for a UN Iran vote

Monday 22 February 2010



The Lebanese government, cobbled together from disparate elements, has had a predictably fitful start. However, one headache may be looming that will severely test Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s ability to maintain unity in the ranks: a UN Security Council vote on sanctions against Iran.

Lebanon is currently the Arab representative on the council. For now the Lebanese are gambling that China’s refusal to approve sanctions will derail a vote. However, in recent days American officials have sounded more upbeat about China’s agreeing to, or at least not vetoing, a sanctions resolution. For example, last weekend US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she believed the Chinese would go along with the project, despite their reservations. Vice President Joseph Biden echoed that thought on Sunday, when he declared “we’ll get the support of China to continue to impose sanctions on Iran.” It was a more cautious national security adviser, Jim Jones, who said “we need to work on China a little more,” before adding, “[O]n this issue, they cannot be nonsupportive.”

That’s bad news for Lebanon, which may find itself in a similar situation to that of Yemen on the eve of the 1991 Gulf war against Iraq. At the time the Yemenis, also sitting in the Arab seat on the Security Council, voted against a war resolution, then paid a heavy political and financial price for that choice. The consequences are likely to be less dramatic in Lebanon’s case, but the potential for damage still remains high.

If Lebanon votes in favor of a sanctions resolution, it will incur the wrath of Hizbullah; if it votes against a resolution, it risks provoking the ire of Arab states who want to see Iran contained, above all Saudi Arabia. And if Lebanon announces beforehand that it will abstain, the decision, if poorly promoted diplomatically, might provoke criticism that it is being wishy-washy, while the permanent Security Council members will be angry not to have the sole Arab representative supporting them. A choice to abstain could also lead to politicization of the vote issue, which would be used as leverage against Hariri and his majority, not least by a Syrian regime that relishes playing on Lebanese contradictions for its own political benefit.

What are Lebanon’s options? The only realistic option is for Beirut to very carefully prepare the ground for regional and international acceptance of a Lebanese abstention. Voting for or against a sanctions resolution will only split the government, and the country, forcing a confrontation that can only be resolved through the compromise of an abstention.

So an abstention it is, but with all the difficulties raised earlier. On the Security Council Lebanon is more than just Lebanon; it is the representative of the Arab consensus, or lack thereof. Few at the United Nations will sympathize if Beirut begs off taking a clear position because this might provoke domestic discord. Many will complain that the Lebanese should have been aware of the dilemmas involved when they stood for the Security Council seat. In fact, that was the attitude last year of Walid Jumblatt, who wondered how Lebanon would handle an Iran vote. It’s not as if our politicians can say they were taken by surprise.

All the Lebanese government can do at this stage is convince the permanent five and the Arab states of why an abstention is preferable. The argument, which it should develop as soon as possible, then make privately to avoid a divisive public discussion, could go something like this: Lebanon, alas, reflects the contradictions of the region. By abstaining, it could, first, cover up Arab divergences over Iran. Lebanon is also going through a necessary process of reconciliation, backed by the Arab world. Instability in the country serves no purpose, and instability will follow from a yes or no vote on sanctions. Lebanese instability also raises the probability of regional strife, whether between Sunnis and Shiites, or between Lebanon and Israel given the recent threats exchanged by both sides. This can only profit Iran, which is adept at exploiting regional polarization. We understand your worries, but you have to understand ours.

Ultimately, all parties in Lebanon would accept an abstention. They have no choice. However, the danger is that a loud public debate before the voting happens could be exploited by various sides to raise the heat on the government, perhaps on unrelated matters. It will be very difficult for Hariri to avert this, since among his Cabinet partners several have an interest in undermining his policies to advance their parochial agendas.

The role of Syria will also be interesting to watch if a Security Council vote becomes inevitable. Where there is Lebanese dissension, Damascus usually likes to heighten it, before selling the solution to all sides. We can assume that the Syrians will ask their allies, for example Nabih Berri, to persist in their demand that Lebanon vote against a sanctions resolution. Hizbullah will obviously do the same. Saad Hariri will find himself in the midst of a mess, and the Syrians will turn to the Saudis and promise to settle everything. They will bring Berri around, as well as Hizbullah – both of whom always intended to accept a Lebanese abstention anyway – in the process discrediting the government, the prime minister, and the very notion that the Lebanese can settle their problems without Syria.

That’s why Hariri must act quickly and quietly to get the ball rolling on endorsement of the Lebanese position, before this is overwhelmed by partisan politics and Syrian manipulation. Trusting in a Chinese veto is not a policy; it’s a prayer that might very well not be heard.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.


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