US-Iran Deal Would Bring Good News to Lebanon

A thaw in US-Iran relations would, over time, have a positive effect on regional conflicts.

al-monitor US Secretary of State John Kerry (3rd L) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (C) sit along with other foreign ministers representing the P5+1 countries on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly at the UN headquarters in New York, Sept. 26, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Brendan McDermid.
Sami Nader

Sami Nader

@saminader

Topics covered

us-iranian relations, regional politics, lebanon crisis, iran, hassan rouhani, barack obama

Oct 2, 2013

In the past few weeks, Lebanon and the entire Middle East have lived to the beat of war drums. Everyone prepared for a US-led military strike on Syria and its projected aftermath and took up positions accordingly. Some raised their tone and threatened, others appeased and negotiated, while yet others remained silent and awaited the results before espousing a view. But suddenly everything changed, and the specter of war dissipated, to be replaced by the dreamy atmosphere of a budding courtship between the United States and Iran. Everyone went back to the drawing board, for the facts had changed. In the not too distant future, these facts may change yet again, transforming with them any adopted policies. Yet, this is only if the soft words and pleasantries exchanged by Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani actually become facts on the ground that build bridges of trust and lead to practical steps that would accompany efforts for the peaceful settlement of two contentious issues: the Iranian nuclear file and the Syrian crisis.

It must first be noted that any progress toward a negotiated settlement, any rapprochement between the Iranians and Americans, or any step toward regional appeasement — regardless of the initiating party — will surely bode well for the situation in Lebanon. This small country now forms the weakest link in this enflamed Middle East. This is a result of its religious sects being aligned and allied with the various belligerent regional camps, and the detrimental effect that this state of affairs has had on Lebanon’s sovereignty. Furthermore, no one must forget that Lebanon paid a heavy price as a result of the strained relationship with Iran, since the latter was excluded from the negotiating table in Madrid, beginning in the early 1990s. From that moment on, Iran took a radical route and led the axis of resistance, which included Damascus as a cornerstone of Arab opposition to the principle of bargaining and Judaization of Palestinian lands.

Hezbollah, on the other hand, began to rise in its capacity as an organized and effective military force in Lebanon. This was particularly true in the country’s south, where it took upon itself the responsibility of resisting and liberating land from the Israeli occupation. As a result of these alignments, Lebanon witnessed two wars — the Grapes of Wrath campaign of 1996 and the July War of 2006 — with all the ensuing destruction of property, displacement of people and victims by the thousands. Yet, the repercussions of the aforementioned strategic exclusion of the mullahs’ regime were not limited to wars. Lebanon also inherited a new conflict, which came to supplement other older conflicts and surpass them in effect. This was a conflict that dismantled the elements of the sovereign state and destroyed the country’s social covenant. This happened for a number of reasons, not least of which was the existence of two agendas diametrically opposed with a military power that exceeds its national army’s capacity to contain. As a result, this unseated all existing balances and attempts at reaching compromises through a dialogue between equals.

But this rapprochement and its positive effects on Lebanon and the region is predicated upon certain conditions, which — if absent — might lead to things having opposite results. The first of these conditions lies in the need for the rapprochement not to be seen or considered to be a bilateral deal between two parties at the expense of others. Iran has benefited from a decade of US political confusion in Iraq and the collapse of competing Arab regimes as a result of the Arab Spring revolutions. Yet, regardless of how influential it becomes, Iran is not the only regional power around. Any deal with Iran will remain hostage to the acceptance of other regional parties, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. Here, we must also point out that Iran’s role in the Arab world has waned, as a result of the Sunni-Shiite conflict — which has grown to proportions rarely seen in Islamic and Arab history — and the Syrian war’s repercussions on all Arab countries.

It is true that the US-Iranian rapprochement is limited to dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue and the economic sanctions associated with it, according to the negotiating strategy laid out by Washington. However, it is also true that Iran, from the beginning, strived to reach a comprehensive deal with the United States that would define Tehran’s role and scope of influence in the Middle East. Its priority therefore is not to develop its nuclear capabilities including those of a military nature, but to play a role. Maybe this is what drove Obama — undoubtedly cognizant of this truth — to take the opportunity to tell his Iranian counterpart that any advances made on the nuclear issue would surely be positively reflected on other tracks as well.

These other tracks, however, include other players. The theory promoted by Iran for the necessity to reach a comprehensive deal to the region’s problems might be valid, but it certainly is not so if it came in the form of a bilateral agreement. It must be a deal that includes all actors without exception — a comprehensive deal that encompasses all issues and partners alike. It may address the problems linearly: from Syria to Lebanon via Iraq.

In Lebanon, for example, the US-Iranian rapprochement will not have positive effects on the country’s stability unless it was accompanied by Saudi cooperation, or even parallel reconciliation between the Saudis and Iranians. It was noteworthy that the Lebanese presidency announced the postponement of President Michel Suleiman’s visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, upon which a lot of hopes lay to facilitate the six-month-long — and counting — effort to form a Lebanese government. No reasons were given for the postponement, but it is clear that it was tied to the latest developments. In particular, it was linked to developments relating to the US-Russian agreement that deals with the dismantling of the Syrian regime’s chemical arsenal and the new reciprocal US-Iranian wooing. Saudi Arabia was undoubtedly worried by these two steps, because they do not offer sufficient guarantees as to the level of the Assad regime’s commitment to implementing a decision that was not adopted under Chapter VII of the United Nations charter. Furthermore, they do not prove Iran’s true intentions regarding a new policy of openness. So Saudi Arabia is waiting — waiting to test intentions and perhaps also waiting for Rouhani’s possible visit to the kingdom, which could carry more meaning than a telephone call and the exchange of pleasantries.

It is too early to predict the results of the US-Iranian rapprochement, for it remains within the realm of rhetoric and has not progressed to probing measures. It is uncertain whether either of the two parties will be able to offer anything that satisfies the needs of the other — be it in the comprehensiveness of the deal or the price demanded. Regarding its positive effects on the region’s crises, this requires going beyond the framework of bilateral dialogue.

Sami Nader is an economist, Middle Eastern affairs analyst and communications expert with extensive expertise in corporate strategy and risk management. He currently directs the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, focusing on economics and geopolitics of the Levant, and is a professor for USJ University in Beirut. On Twitter: @saminader

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