Iran's Power Play in Lebanon

Tehran is bolstering Hezbollah's political influence.

Lebanon defied its fellow Arab League members this week by rejecting a Saudi-sponsored vote labeling Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The move comes on the heels of Riyadh reversing its decades-long support for the Lebanese government by suspending a four-billion-dollar security-aid package, in frustration over Hezbollah’s growing control over virtually all aspects of the country’s government. The Gulf states soon followed suit. The Arab League vote and the aid cutoffs, however, won’t be enough for Lebanon to shake off Hezbollah’s domination. As the Shiite party continues to escalate tensions, its Lebanese political foes have shown themselves to be too feckless to confront the organization and reclaim their country.

Since establishing Hezbollah in Lebanon in 1983, Iran has steadily brought the diminutive country into its “axis of resistance” against the West. For their part, the Saudis refrained from directly meddling in Lebanese affairs as long as their own regional war with Tehran remained “cold.” But recent developments—including the Yemeni civil war and the signing of last summer’s Iran nuclear agreement—have made Riyadh more vigilant about the regional expansion of Iranian influence.

When its diplomatic missions in Iran were attacked in January, the kingdom demanded Arab unity in response. However, as the Arab League vote to condemn the attacks, only Lebanon objected. Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, a member of the Hezbollah-allied Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), said he rejected the resolution only because it criticized Hezbollah. However, he later also objected to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s own condemnation, even though it lacked any criticism of the Shiite party and denounced only Iran.

Lebanon’s message was clear: it would not hesitate to risk Arab goodwill in favor of Tehran’s interests. Realizing this, the kingdom ended its traditional neutrality between Beirut and the Party of God, part of a comprehensive review of its relations with Lebanon. Bassil’s more recent rejection of the League’s designation and his description of Hezbollah as “an essential component of Lebanon” will now likely lead to similar reactions from other Arab countries.