How Popular Is Iran in Lebanon?
Iran’s hard power in Lebanon is well-known. At its beck and call is the Hezbollah militia, the powerful military force through which Iran largely controls the Lebanese state. Iran’s soft power, however, is limited to Lebanon’s Shiites, and even among them it is hardly overwhelming.
As to hard power, Hezbollah is the most powerful military force in the state and probably the Lebanese army as well. This can be deduced from the behavior of the Lebanese army, which has on countless occasions used heavy-handed methods, indeed brutality, against Sunni fundamentalist groups of Lebanese, Palestinian, or Syrian origin.
The army’s obeisance to Hezbollah reached its zenith in May 2008, when the terror organization’s fighters fanned out across Beirut and laid siege to the Lebanese government complex the Grand Serail to induce the cabinet to make legislative changes that would allow Hezbollah veto powers over government decisions. The army stayed away from the fighting.
This begs the question: Is Tehran’s hold over Lebanon a function of brute power alone or does it wield soft power there as well?
Soft power can be gauged in a number of ways. And media sites are a good place to start.
Hezbollah controls two major media sites in Lebanon: al-Manar, the organization’s official site, and al-Mayadeen, which does not openly identify with Hezbollah but toes the party line.
The Iranian connection is clearly visible in both of them. Unlike all the other major media sites in Lebanon, they cover Iranian figures, principally the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. To a lesser extent, they promote religious themes like the concept of wilayat al-faqih (in Persian, vilayeti faqih) — the belief that government actions and parliamentary legislation must be reviewed by religious authorities and, most importantly, the Supreme Leader.
In a 2014 study by a leading Lebanese bank of 20 of the largest websites according to searches or listeners, neither of Hezbollah’s two media sites made it on to the list of Lebanon’s top 20. This is striking, as Shiites comprise anywhere between 20% and 40% of the population. If these stations were popular among Shiites, they would have cracked the list.
Searching lists of top singers based on the frequency of songs aired by media sites yields much the same result. Iranian singers are not aired on Lebanese media, primarily because of language. There is little appetite for music sung in Farsi. The overwhelming majority of songs aired are in Arabic, followed by English and French.
Iran’s film industry, even under the ayatollahs, can boast a significant number of pictures that have won awards in prestigious film festivals in the West (though rarely has such success been replicated at the box office). Yet in the Lebanese movie scene, the US seems to have a near monopoly on soft power, as the cinemas screen film after film from Hollywood.
Serials and telenovelas are as popular a genre in Lebanon as they are the world over. Again, the Iranian versions have zero visibility.
The Lebanese then are neither parochial nor particularly discriminating; they simply do not choose to watch dubbed Iranian productions. Much of this has to do with the low budgets of Iranian productions and the limited technology they employ (in part as a result of sanctions imposed on the import of such technology). And since there is every reason to believe that Shiites are as avid viewers as other Lebanese, it appears they are no more partial to Iranian productions than their fellow citizens.
In the “harder” aspects of soft power, such as ideology and identity, Iran is more visible.
As for Tehran’s ideological influence, searches in Lebanon for “Ayatollah Khomeini” in Arabic clearly show a following, but it is correlated to the Shiite population. The more predominantly Shiite the district — Nabatiyya in the south or the southern portion of the Beka Valley in the east — the higher the proportion of searches for the leader of the Iranian revolution. Significantly, the district that is the most predominantly Sunni — Tripoli in the northwest — yields hardly any searches.
Searches for other Iranian leaders, such as Ali Khamenei, the present Supreme Leader and arguably the most powerful figure in Iran, yield even more skewed results: high interest in predominantly Shiite districts and almost no interest at all in predominantly Sunni and Christian areas.
This should hardly be surprising in a Middle East where old communities still stick to themselves and where more cosmopolitan tastes tend to be absorbed into the confessional tapestry of society rather than replace it.
The Islamic Republic of Iran originally hoped that a focus on the downtrodden and Islam rather than Shiism would hide its imperialist urges. Iran is now being rebuffed by a more aggressive Saudi-led counter-offensive, but even its limited soft power in Lebanon demonstrates that imperialism no longer pays.
Professor Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. BESA Center Perspectives Papers, such as this one, are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.