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February 11, 2019 9:52 am

Lebanon: The Gangland State

avatar by Avi Melamed

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Hezbollah supporters in Marjayoun, Lebanon, May 7, 2018. Photo: Reuters / Aziz Taher / File.

General elections were held in Lebanon in May 2018. Why did it take until January 31st, 2019 to finally assemble a government?

One of the major reasons for the delay was Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s demand to appoint an additional independent Sunni minister to the government. Nasrallah said that as long Hezbollah’s conditions were not met, the assembling of a government could wait “until judgment day.”

Hezbollah is a Shi’ite Lebanese organization established in Lebanon in the beginning of the 1980s by the Iranian Quds Force, an elite unit of the Revolutionary Guards Corps. So, the obvious question is, why would Hezbollah want to appoint an additional Sunni minister?

The Lebanese government has 30 ministers, and the ministerial positions are allocated according to a system of quotas. In a bid to further weaken the major Sunni political party Al-Mustaqbal (The Future) led by the Acting Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, Nasrallah’s strategy was to implant an independent Sunni minister who would ally himself with the 10 ministers of Hezbollah’s political ally, the predominantly Christian Free Patriotic Movement, led by Lebanese President Michel Aoun. An extra minister would give Aoun 11 ministers, equaling more than one-third of the government and providing his party automatic veto power over the government’s decisions.

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In the end, one Sunni independent minster was appointed. Yet he was included within — not in addition to — the quota of 10 ministers from the Free Patriotic Movement.

What made Iran instruct Hezbollah to compromise? What caused Aoun to give up one of his ministers to make room for a Hezbollah “appointee?”

First, money. Iran’s economy is suffocating under increasingly painful US sanctions. According to President Hassan Rouhani, Iran “is in the most difficult situation in the last 40 years.” Among other things, this is limiting the Mullah regime’s ability to continue to finance its proxies in arenas which are key to its hegemonic vision — Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and the Gaza Strip. Hezbollah, its most substantial proxy, receives an estimated $560 million (out of an estimated annual budget of $700 million) from Iran. Hezbollah’s financial problems are mounting, due to — among other things — the fact that the US has directly targeted Hezbollah’s money laundering and narcotics network.

Second, Lebanon’s economy is in shambles. One of the only sources of hope the government has is an $11 billion pledge of support promised to Lebanon by European states in the Cedar (CEDRE) Conference, hosted by France in April 2018. The Cedar funds could provide a significant income source to help Hezbollah and Iran address the terror group’s growing  financial challenges. In the new government, Hezbollah holds three portfolios — the most important being the health ministry. Under that ministry, Hezbollah could allocate the funds required to treat and rehabilitate thousands of Hezbollah militants wounded in the war in Syria and to aid their families; help Iran’s economy through importing Iranian-made medicines; and legalize cannabis, thus legitimizing one of Hezbollah’s major current income sources. As Lebanese politicians failed to assemble a government, French President Emmanuel Macron’s patience waned. He reportedly warned the funds were going to be allocated to other purposes. Within a few days the Lebanese government was assembled.

Third, the US-Poland Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East, scheduled to take place in Warsaw on Feb. 13-14, presents a diplomatic challenge to Iran. Though not formally presented as such, the conference aims to focus — rightly so — on the growing threat Iran presents to the region.

Fourth, Europe and the EU are demonstrating a sort of schizophrenic policy. On the one hand, they condemn Iran and threaten sanctions in response to terror plots and acts of terror in their countries and express concern over Iran’s ballistic missile program. On the other hand, they do not support “anti-Iran” decisions at the Warsaw conference, but maintain and are trying to grow economic and diplomatic relationships with Tehran.

On January 31, Germany, France, and the UK launched a “special purpose vehicle” called INSTEX SAS (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges). This a special financial channel designed to bypass US sanctions and enable European businesses to conduct trade (though limited) and do business with Iran despite the reimposition of US sanctions on Tehran.

Considering all the above, it is my analysis that Iran’s decision to give their consent to the formation of a government in Lebanon was Iran’s way of reciprocating and cultivating European economic and diplomatic support.

The most important thing to understand about Lebanon, however, is that it has been kidnapped from within by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah. The Lebanese government is to a large extent fiction. The real boss in Lebanon is Hezbollah, regardless of how many parliament members or government ministries Hezbollah has.

Time and again, it has been proven that Hezbollah dictates Lebanon’s domestic politics, as well as its foreign and national security policy.

Hezbollah carried out the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, the 2006 war against Israel, and the 2008 occupation of Beirut. It has been fighting in the war in Syria despite the Lebanese government’s official neutrality policy and dug the border-crossing tunnels into Israel, violating UNSC resolution 1701. Blocking the creation of the government is the latest example of the fact that, for all intents and purposes, Lebanon is ruled by Iran.

When Israel left Lebanon in 2000, the Lebanese government requested that Hezbollah disarm itself. Hezbollah refused, defining their weapons as “Weapons of the Resistance,” allegedly there to defend Lebanon against Israeli aggression. “The Resistance” — al-Muqawamah — is the code name for the elimination of Israel through violence, a central tenet and guiding ideology of Iran and its proxies Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad in Palestine (IJIP), etc.

Hezbollah strives to build the Lebanese national identity around the motto: “The unbreakable Holy Trinity: The People, The Army, and The Resistance.” The strategy and ideology beyond the slogan is to subdue the Lebanese army to Hezbollah’s and thus to follow Iran’s orders. Lebanese President Michel Aoun protects Hezbollah’s “Holy Trinity,” arguing that “Lebanon needs Hezbollah’s weapons, because it is too weak.”

Israel rightly holds the government of Lebanon responsible for any hostility perpetrated from Lebanon into Israel. This strategy — designed to make Hezbollah Lebanon’s problem, not Israel’s — is one of the reasons Hezbollah is deterred from attacking Israel. A military confrontation with Israel that will result in destruction on an inconceivable scale to Lebanon, an already malfunctioning state, will leave Hezbollah crushed and vulnerable — a bad position to be in, particularly in Lebanon, a state whose politics is guided by the ethics, codes, and mindset of gangsters.

Avi Melamed is the Salisbury Fellow of Intelligence and Middle East Affairs for the Eisenhower Institute and a former Israeli Senior Official on Arab Affairs and Intelligence.

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