Huffington Post, 10 September 2017 - In recent times, there have been two interesting developments in the efforts of the commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iraq and Lebanon. Both events fall within the scope of the bid to impose the model produced by the Iranian Revolution, of creating a parallel military structure alongside the regular army, whereas the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq operate in parallel with the Iraqi army, and Hezbollah in parallel with the Lebanese army, just like the IRGC operates in parallel with the army in Iran. This project has faced resistance and it is worth considering its implications, not just for those behind it, but also for the future of Iraq and Lebanon. In Iraq, there is Shia resistance to the effort to legitimize the Iranian model and the PMUs at the expense of the Iraqi army. In Lebanon, there is a governmental and popular resistance to Hezbollah’s insistence on imposing its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army, not just from Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri but also President Michel Aoun, who has emphasized the Lebanese army as the leading legitimate protector of Lebanon. Tehran in the meantime fears that Iraqi-Gulf rapprochement could undermine its project, while it sees Lebanon as a necessary bridge to rehabilitate Syria in the Arab world and then internationally.
In this regard, US-Russian partnership in Syria and Iraq is key. In Lebanon, there is an international decision to prevent a security collapse and to empower the army to play its conventional role without a partnership with Hezbollah in any legitimacy. Instead, there is a bid to head off any attempt by Hezbollah to replicate the Iranian model in Lebanon.
In Iraq, there is US-Russian accord to resist the perpetuation of the IRGC model through the PMUs. The Gulf element in this accord has emerged in the rapprochement with Iraq’s Shia leaders, which has prompted Iran to dispatch high-level delegates to Baghdad on an urgent mission. It has also emerged in a recent Saudi decision to resume interest in Lebanon’s developments. Despite all the one-upmanship and rhetoric regarding who liberated Lebanese territory from ISIS in the barrens of Arsal, al-Qaa, and Ras Baalbeck, what happened was that the Lebanese army has gained unprecedented legitimacy because for the first time it acted proactively rather than reactively. One senior Lebanese official said this legitimacy is now really not emotional. He said that Hezbollah, despite all its insistence, has not obtained legitimacy because “the president has a distinguished, profound, emotional, and practical relationship with the army.” “His face lights up when the army is mentioned, and nothing will dissuade him from giving priority to the army,” he added. “The army is strong and has national legitimacy as a result of the battle it fought in Ras Baalbeck and al-Qaa”.
Washington has a keen interest in the Lebanese army and wants it safeguarded without the kind of partnership Hezbollah is desperate to impose. Hezbollah has failed to get what it wants despite all its lobbying and media machinery going into overdrive. The army has never and will never say that Hezbollah shares its legitimacy. This denies Hezbollah from replicating the IRGC model in Lebanon, and from becoming the Lebanese IRGC.
The other key prong of Hezbollah’s strategy is facilitating a ‘reunion’ between the government of Syria and Lebanon, not just through secret visits like the ones its leaders have undertaken in the past years as fully fledged allies, but through an official and public ‘marriage’ that would rehabilitate Damascus’s Arab legitimacy through the Lebanese gateway.
Saudi Arabia re-entered the Lebanese arena recently to prevent this, according to one well-informed official. Riyadh has judged that the prime minister in Lebanon is the necessary spearhead in preventing this sought-after union. For this reason, Saudi Arabia has decided to return minister Thamer al-Sabhan to Beirut, preceded by escalators tweets against Hezbollah calling on Lebanon to make a choice, either to stand against or fall behind Hezbollah and cautioning of the implications for the Lebanese over this choice.
Some say that Riyadh is resolved to prevent the Beirut-Damascus reunion even if that took “sabotaging Lebanon”, though politically and not through security means, including by toppling the Lebanese government headed by Hariri in favor of a technocratic government, out of the insistence on having a government with a more coherent position vis-à-vis Hezbollah. Others completely discount this scenario, saying removing Hariri’s government would bring an alternative that is not favorable to Saudi’s stance against Hezbollah’s dominance in Lebanon and political decision making in Beirut. The proponents of the first view say Thabhan’s remarks indicate Saudi Arabia is fed up with the “negative and weak performance of the Lebanese government,” and that the upcoming legislative elections in Lebanon will be an occasion for Saudi Arao seriously counter Hezbollah’s projects. If that requires “a shock for the government, then it will not hesitate,” they say.
The US and Saudi Arabia are in agreement over refusing Hezbollah’s bid to impose its legitimacy at the expense of the Lebanese army. They make the distinction between a de-facto partnership with Hezbollah in the war against ISIS in Syria, and Hezbollah’s quest for legitimacy as a parallel IRGC-like entity. Washington is determined for the Lebanese state to deliver on its pledge that there would be no partnership between the army and Hezbollah. US envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley adopted a firm position regarding the mandate of the UNIFIL peacekeeping forces in South Lebanon and the implementation to the letter of resolution 1701, affirming the total separation between the legitimacy of the Lebanese army and Hezbollah’s peculiar status.
The Trump administration has had a vague policy on Syria in terms of its silent consent to Iranian expansion in IS-held territory, part of the geography of its arc, corridor, or crescent linking Tehran to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. This stance could be temporary tactics, imposed by the long-term grand strategy, or it could be a result of the US confusion that has long benefited Tehran. It is premature to determine this at this juncture.
Clearly, however, Iran remains part of the “continuation of unrest in the Middle East rather than stability in the region,” as one veteran political analyst put it. The proponents of this view say that the Americans will not allow Iran to gain a legitimate foothold on the Mediterranean. Therefore, Iran will remain a source of instability and Lebanon will remain forbidden ammunition. These voices say that US-Russian accord on removing militias from Syria will be executed within a year or two, after which Hezbollah will return to Lebanon with many question marks surrounding its role there. They say Iran does not intend to open the south Lebanese front with Israel, which has found itself relieved by the Syrian war with its border its hold on the Golan secured. Either this will be translated into some kind of truce that will spare Lebanon or it could lead Hezbollah to compensate for its resistance against Israel credentials by imposing its agenda on the Lebanese home front.
Things are different on many levels in Iraq. Iraq is more important in the Iranian-Gulf balance of power than Lebanon is in the Iranian-Israeli balance of power, which has been suspended with the consent of both sides as well as the US and Russia. Iraq today is in the eye of the storm of partition, which Washington and Moscow claim they oppose. Both agree on the priority of the regular army over the Iranian-sponsored PMUs. More importantly, however, is the decision of Iraq’s Shia Arabs who do not accept the idea of the Iranian model dominating their lives. This camp is behind a project for restoring Iraq’s central position in the Arab bloc and vice versa.
Tehran is concerned by this. This is why it has sought to contain the damage caused by the practices and projects of the IRGC, dispatching to Baghdad this week the head of the Chairman of Expediency Discernment Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi – an Iraqi by birth – and his deputy Mohsen Rezai to repair the Shia alliance in Baghdad. Iran is also equally concerned by the rapprochement between Iraqi Shia leaders such as Prime Minister Haider Abadi and cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian side has often boasted of being a reliable partner and ally, unlike the inconsistent form of partnership and alliance between the US and the Gulf, as it sees it. Iran is betting on some kind of weakness afflicting the new Gulf push to open a new page with Iraq, and the recent enthusiasm shown for influencing Lebanon to contain Hezbollah. There is a history that supports Iran’s bets and boasts, in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. If Gulf diplomacy decides to contain the damage resulting from the impression that it is impatient and late to act, it must invest in a strategy to counter Iran’s claims and thwart the bet that the Gulf push in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon will eventually cool down. Partnerships are difficult, but there is a dire need for new kinds of partnerships different from the ones that have given out the impression they were unbalanced and transient.
Preempting the attempts to create surrogates for conventional Arab armies in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, and Syria is of paramount importance because if successful, these attempts will mean the exportation of the Iranian Revolution and the regime in Tehran to the Arab world.