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Lebanese split over Iran deal

Political views in Lebanon diverge over the Iranian nuclear deal, as some consider it a tool to tighten relations between Tehran and Beirut and others as a way for Iran to further expand its influence in the region.
Ali Akbar Velayati (L), Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's top adviser on international affairs, meets with Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri in Beirut May 18, 2015. REUTERS/Aziz Taher - RTX1DG9U

The deal with Iran has been signed and is now an undeniable reality, yet doubt lingers about its effects and repercussions for the situation in the Middle East. Will its critics be proven correct, and will the situation mutate into one much more dangerous than that prior to July 14, 2015? The crisis is growing deeper, and the fires of war rage stronger in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The dispute is intensifying between Shiites and Sunnis, as well as supporters and detractors of Iran, from Gaza to Beirut, Aleppo and Fallujah.

Skeptics such as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal fear that Iran’s frozen funds to be released pursuant to the Vienna agreement will be used to bolster the capabilities of the Quds Force, the Shiite Popular Mobilization Units and Hezbollah, dreading that Iran will up the pace of exporting its revolution.

On the other hand, optimists such as US President Barack Obama and his team view the agreement as a harbinger of a new era, wagering that lifting the sanctions will pave the way for Iran to economically merge with the rest of the world, as a prelude to it restoring its political position therein.

Thus, in Lebanon, optimists hope that the agreement will heal the rift between the pro-Iran camp, namely the March 8 coalition, and the anti-Iran March 14 — those members were always accused by their opponents of being strong supporters of former US Ambassador to Lebanon Jeffrey Feltman, at a time when the United States strongly opposed Iran.

The optimists also anticipate that the budding US-Iranian rapprochement will lead to an intra-Lebanese reconciliation, resulting in Lebanese constitutional institutions being restored to normalcy and the election of a president after more than 14 months of presidential vacuum.

In contrast, pessimists fear that the lifting of sanctions will lead to increasing Iranian support for Hezbollah and the stoking of the Syrian war. The war is casting a long shadow on the internal situation in Lebanon, exacerbating the rifts over the war and Hezbollah’s arms among the various components of Lebanese society.

The speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri — who is also a prominent member of the March 8 coalition — expressed hope in a parliamentary meeting held July 15 that “the agreement contributes to create an atmosphere conducive to allaying complications standing in the way of electing a president. And [I hope] this agreement would have positive repercussions on the region, as well as help achieve a breakthrough on the Lebanese scene.”

Other positive reactions came from the March 14 camp, with former Prime Minister Fouad Siniora — a prominent figure of the Saudi-backed Future Movement — opining July 15 that the agreement was “an important event.”

Sinora also called for the establishment of good relations with Iran, saying, “We share many historical commonalities with Iran and Arab countries bound by a long history of mutual relations.”

This positive outlook reflects Saudi official acceptance of the agreement, as expressed by King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, who on July 22 expressed hope that “a final binding agreement be reached, leading to the bolstering of security and stability in the region and the world.”

But these official stances do not diminish fears that the agreement could serve to reinforce Iran’s expansionist policy in the Middle East and its support for local militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Vice President of the Future Movement Antoine Andraos told Al-Monitor, “The main issue in this agreement is the lifting of the embargo on Iranian arms, which will have repercussions on Lebanon and lead to added military support for Hezbollah at the expense of Lebanese state institutions. How, then, can one feel at ease about this agreement and simply rely on Iran’s peaceful intentions?”

Lebanese concerns about the agreement have nothing to do with nuclear weapons, but revolve around Iran’s role and specifically Hezbollah’s policies. For divisions in this regard are deep, as former Prime Minister Saad Hariri said July 12 when he rejected Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian war as well as others in the region.

The Iranians said it first, and the Americans echoed them upon signing the agreement: This deal is limited to the nuclear issue. US Secretary of State John Kerry stated, “We do not yet know what the future may hold.” This applies to Lebanon as well, for the future is open to all possibilities, particularly considering that the fires of war have yet to subside in Syria, Iraq or Yemen.

The Lebanese are better served to view the Iranian deal as a way to keep Lebanon isolated from the conflicts of regional powers sweeping the Middle East. Former Lebanese President Michel Suleiman told Al-Monitor, “We must look at the Vienna accord from the perspective of safeguarding Lebanese interests and working toward benefiting therefrom, irrespective of any wagers concerning an imminent victory by one of the factions. We must also return to the Baabda Declaration, which was unanimously signed by all Lebanese factions in June 2012, and stipulated that Lebanon be dissociated from the Syrian war, in order to guarantee that it be shielded from the conflicts of regional powers and their anticipated race to divide influence in the region.”

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