An agreement was just concluded between Lebanon and Israel regarding its maritime borders and extended economic zone. It ostensibly provides Israel with greater security and Lebanon gas. Though negotiated with the Lebanese government, the pact would not have been possible without the approval of Hezbollah, and, by extension, its patron, Iran. The group quickly took credit for it, portraying it as Israeli capitulation to Hezbollah’s drones and missiles.
The hand of Iran and its proxy Hezbollah has lain heavily over the region for decades. Lebanon’s years of economic and cultural decline correlate closely with Iranian ascendency. Lebanon’s golden years, in the fifties and sixties, were the result of western affiliation, as well as abiding by the 1949 armistice with Israel. After the Six-Day war in 1967 Lebanon became embroiled in four decades of proxy wars against Israel by Palestinian, Syrian, and Iranian backed forces. The assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, and the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon soon thereafter, paved the way for Iranian influence. Iranian hegemony was further consolidated in 2006, with the conclusion of a pact between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement, the largest Christian party at the time (having secured seventy percent of the Christian vote in the 2005 elections). The leader of the Free Patriotic Movement General Michael Aoun became president in 2016.
The rise of political Sunni Islam, meanwhile, accentuated the anti-Western sentiment and played into the hands of Hezbollah which presented itself as the defender of minorities (Christians, Druze) from radical Sunni Islam. Sunni resentment was dominated and fed by Arab nationalist and Palestinian issues. Most alarming; however, was the shift in the Christian community. The narrative of Eastern Christianity being aligned with Iran quietly displaced the cultural and political ties with the West. Anti-Semitic and anti-West conspiracy theories against Eastern Christianity prevailed, with Iraq and Syria being the primary examples. Christians in Lebanon, the most important and last remaining pro-Western party, became a minor player with many factions under Hezbollah’s influence. The Christian Moslem confrontation of the civil war gave way to a Sunni-Shia dynamic with Hezbollah having the upper hand.
Prosperous Lebanon, the Switzerland of the East, is now part of the axis of resistance, aligned with Iran. Hezbollah has become the main player within the State, and no longer a state within the state. Hezbollah now holds the key to presidential elections, as well as appointing the Sunni prime minister. The Sunnis, fragmented and detached from Saudi Arabia, are easy prey for Hezbollah. Thus far, Saudi efforts in Lebanon have failed to create a unified Sunni front against Hezbollah.
Western influence is waning dramatically, as well. The latest setback was the collapse of the banking sector. Analysts have focused on the demise of the sector in purely financial terms, without much consideration of the impact on the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon. The banking sector is largely Christian-owned and controlled. Its dissolution has directly diminished Christian influence, as well as weakening ties to Western financial institutions. No wonder the Shia alliance in Lebanon has insisted, and will probably continue to do so, on heading the ministry of finance. Indeed, Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly declared that Lebanon’s economic future lies with China. Of note, the demise of the tourism sector has also disproportionately affected Christian areas. The principal Hezbollah tourist attraction in South Lebanon is a war museum.
Another blow to Western interests was the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020. The massive explosion was a national disaster by any measure, yet Hezbollah had little empathy or interest in portraying it as such. The extensive damage disproportionately affected Eastern Christian Beirut. A surprise visit and subsequent initiative by President Macron yielded little in terms of political reform. Nevertheless, the French remain in close contact with Hezbollah.
The popular civic uprising of October 17, 2019, against the corrupt political elite showed promising beginnings and some hope of restoring ties with the west. Yet the motto of the revolution which was aimed at clearing out the corrupt officials, “All means all,” played into the hands of Hezbollah by diffusing blame over all parties concerned. By equally distributing blame across pro-Western and anti-Western parties, some Western diplomats inadvertently established moral equivalence between mainstream Lebanese parties and Hezbollah. Civil society and the uprising of October 17 achieved a modest success in the parliamentary elections in May. However, plagued by internal dissent, their elected members have failed to deliver. One thing they did achieve was to diffuse resentment and to shift dissent from the streets of Beirut to parliament. There were hardly any demonstrations after the elections, and none in the Shia neighborhoods. Early hope of political reform by the newly elected members of parliament has now faded.
The war in Ukraine furthered distances Lebanon from its Western patrons. Except for a brief statement by Lebanon’s foreign minister denouncing Russia’s aggression early on, the war against Ukraine was met with silence by most Lebanese parties including civil society. Paradoxically, parties demanding support from the West, have shown little empathy as the war in the Ukraine threatens the West itself. Some, for a variety of logistical or religious reasons, even show sympathy with Russia. Lebanon’s vote in the UN General Assembly against Russia reflects an official position not shared by many political parties. The popular revolt in Iran has also elicited little or no response from pro-Western parties in Lebanon. Again, these same parties decrying Iranian hegemony in Lebanon have shown little concern for Iran’s brutal suppression of freedoms.
The economic and cultural drift away from the West is nowhere more evident than in Beirut. The multicultural air of modernity is degenerating into a monomorphic megapolis. Only a few American institutions of higher education struggle to remain defiant amid Iranian hegemony and religious fanaticism. Downtown Beirut, which was rebuilt after the civil war, lies now abandoned. The irreversible demographic shift is evident in quickly vanishing minorities in West Beirut, including Druze, and Armenian communities, as well as various Christian denominations. Most diplomatic missions are now located in Christian areas east of Beirut, except, notably, the Russian and Iranian embassies.
Though petty crime has skyrocketed, the possibility of chaos and descent into civil strife because of the unprecedented economic collapse is unlikely. Hezbollah holds a monopoly on power that is unopposed. The Lebanese Armed Forces coordinate with Hezbollah and will not challenge its dominance. Interestingly, the economic collapse has disproportionately affected the Lebanese Army, whereas Hezbollah’s cadre remains relatively insulated, as their salaries are paid in full and in US dollars. Hezbollah’s hegemony has not only shifted Lebanon politically and militarily, but more importantly, economically and culturally, away from the West. No legislation, election, or civil strife can reverse this trend in the foreseeable future. Traditional regional players are too weak (Syria) or poorly motivated (Israel) to effect a change.
Two regional events, however, may dent Iran’s influence. Any extension of the Abraham Accords to Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, would weaken Iran by promoting a more neutral stance of ending the state of war with Israel. Another is the precarious situation in Iran which is grappling with internal dissent and now a full partner in a war against the US and Europe. A Russian defeat will surely impact Iran’s standing in the region. Until then, Lebanon will have little peace and no prosperity.
Basem Shabb MD is a Cardiothoracic Surgeon and former Member of Lebanese Parliament 2005-2018.