Thursday, June 18, 2009

Lebanon may have missed going Iran's way

Michel Aoun's yawning emptiness was on display a few weeks before the parliamentary elections, when he was asked why he would not debate his Kesrouan rival Carlos Edde. "Who would translate," was Aoun's reply, as he sneered at Edde's Arabic. Yet Edde got the better of that round. He was among the first candidates to tar Aoun with an Iranian brush, one that critically weakened the general in Christian constituencies.

The aftermath of the presidential election in Iran shows that Edde was right to make the connection. With the regime of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acting with great brutality to impose a doubtful election victory, we can legitimately ask, caveats notwithstanding, whether Hizbullah would not have used a win of its own to place a similar headlock on the Lebanese political system in the future. In that way, the party could have used its authority to predetermine the outcomes in next year's municipal elections and the 2013 parliamentary elections to guarantee a lasting majority for itself and its allies.

Some would insist this is doubtful. Hizbullah, far from wanting to force an Iranian-style system on the Lebanese, would have preferred to work from behind the scenes through its control over the commanding heights of the state. The party could have placed Aoun and other allies at the forefront of a new government, allowing Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah to get what he wanted without pushing too hard and provoking a domestic backlash.

There is some truth there, but it also seems too neat a picture. Ultimately, Hizbullah did not put so much money and effort into the elections merely to recreate the situation that existed before June 7. For Nasrallah, like for Ahmadinejad, if we recall the Iranian president's recent statements on Lebanon, the elections were supposed to bring about precisely what Hizbullah's secretary general spent weeks saying they would: a state structured around a paramount concept of "resistance," which would sanction Hizbullah's weapons in the context of an official national "defense strategy." There was in the party's actions a definite will to power - no less decisive than is Khamenei's and Ahmadinejad's defense of their power in the security-dominated, post-revolutionary Iranian order.

Once in office, Hizbullah would have regarded its victory as a mandate to turn state institutions around to implement its aims. Given its behavior in May of last year, and now that we know that Nasrallah, even in defeat, believes he represents a Lebanese majority, Hizbullah would likely have accelerated its takeover of the state. Aoun, given his limited means to counter such actions, would have ended up being a fig leaf.

In many respects Hizbullah is a Leninist organization, a vanguard party focused on implementing a revolutionary ideology. The revolutionary impulse has always been an essential part of Hizbullah's mindset, with the idea of "resistance" at its center. That's not to say the party is today seeking to introduce an Islamic Republic in Lebanon, as that would only undermine its broader objectives; for a revolutionary party to survive, it sometimes needs to make momentary compromises. But for the past decade and more, Hizbullah has pursued, with great clarity and steadfastness, the objective of making the principle of armed resistance against Israel, but also against the United States, the cornerstone of national policy both in Lebanon and the Middle East, whether through its own actions or those of likeminded groups. While this has served Iranian interests above all, it has also reflected an ideological worldview that can only truly see its finality in the context of a state - the institution best able to protect and develop the revolutionary impulse. Therefore, to assume that the party would not have taken advantage of an election victory to help fulfill that ideological commitment in Lebanon seems almost counter-intuitive.

Two things reinforce this conclusion. The first is that Nasrallah has never hidden his contempt for the Lebanese political system, nor his hubristic belief that he and his party can define a "better" Lebanon than the one we have today. That is one reason why he has been able so readily to exploit Michel Aoun, who, no less hubristically, if far less persuasively, also feels that he can change Lebanon to satisfy his preferences.

The second is that Nasrallah needs to alter the foundations of the Lebanese state in order for Hizbullah to survive. The secretary general knows very well that since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, his party's future has rested on shaky foundations. A majority of Lebanese, and that includes Shiites, remains uneasy about the prospect of perpetual war against Israel. Yet without conflict Hizbullah could not survive, nor could it justify retaining its weapons; so the party needs to maintain the threat of conflict alive, just as it needs to more strongly anchor itself in the Lebanese state to ensure that such conflict, when it does come, will not unseat it from power. In this respect, Hizbullah sees things much in the same way as do its sponsors in Iran, particularly the Pasdaran, who have established a parallel authority in the Iranian state to guard against any possible counter-revolutionary urges from within the society.

Then again Lebanon is not Iran. What Hizbullah would have liked to achieve is not necessarily what it could have achieved. Had it tried to take over the state, the party would have met resistance, provoking civil unrest, if not outright civil war, because that is how Lebanese society reacts when its sectarian rules are broken. But as the events of May 2008 showed, Hizbullah can be recklessly indifferent to these rules. So, when the Lebanese voted against the opposition on June 7, they voted not only against the possibility of being ruled by Hizbullah; they also voted against an equally unpleasant alternative: sectarian conflict.

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