Friday, November 29, 2013

Will Christians pay for a nuclear deal with Iran?

The Lebanese are wondering what the recent interim deal over Iran’s nuclear program means for them. There is a proverb that says, “If you sit by the river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy float by.” In Lebanon, sit by the river long enough, and you will see the region’s bodies floating by, as everything bad in the Middle East tends to wash up on the country’s troubled shores.

For the opponents of Iran, the recent deal, which lifted some sanctions on the Islamic Republic, is regarded as threatening. It may free up billions of dollars, allowing Tehran to readily finance its military operations in the Arab world, including Hezbollah’s.

Moreover, a rapprochement between Iran and the United States, they fear, will give Tehran greater latitude to pursue its political agenda without intervention from the United States, which doesn’t want to jeopardize future negotiations over a final nuclear deal with Iran.

At the heart of Arab anxiety is a mistrust of the Obama administration, and a feeling that it will be taken to the cleaners in talks by the more patient and versatile Iranians.

That may be true, or it may not be, but few Lebanese are pinning their hopes on the United States, despite statements by the US ambassador in Beirut, David Hale, that Washington would counter Iran’s activities in the region, and those of Hezbollah, regardless of the negotiations with Iran. From their perspective, Lebanon, as the weakest link in the regional system, is bound to lose out in the end.

Though this reading may be overly pessimistic, its basics are sound. That’s because if, as many Lebanese want, the United States and the European states decide to push Iran to make concessions in its regional agenda, including ending support for a militarized Hezbollah, the Iranians would only accept this, if indeed they ever do, in exchange for greater political power for their Lebanese Shiite allies.

That would mean reformulating the Taif accord and scrapping the 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliament. This would presumably be replaced with a ratio of one-third of seats for Shiites, another third for the Sunnis, and the final third for the Christians.

Other amendments may be introduced as well, for instance removing the presidency from the hands of the Maronites, or threatening to do so; raising the share of senior public offices reserved for Shiites, for instance the position of army commander; and so on. Of course, the speakership of parliament often seems stronger than the presidency, so Shiite demands could be weighed against the costs of alienating the Christians by denying them the position of head of state.

While it has become largely a sinecure, the presidency has great symbolic value for the Maronites. Rather than negotiate a readjustment of power and implementation of Taif in a way that prevents an imposition of unwanted reforms on their community in the future, Christian leaders have stubbornly clung to their prerogatives without properly reading the changing political context.

But whatever happens, this context is indeed changing as Lebanon is already a country whose destiny is being shaped by dynamics in the Sunni and Shiite communities. The Christians have a role, and an important one, as balancers between the two main Muslim sects, but it is very different than what they were used to before. Rather than simply lamenting their decline, their best option is to understand where they are today and chart a new role for themselves in a very different Lebanon than the one that emerged after independence.

As Sunni-Shiite tensions rise, the principal regional sponsors of both communities will seek to shape Lebanon to the advantage of their favorites in the country. To contain the Sunnis, Iran will demand more power for the Shiites – at least power commensurate with their numbers. In turn, Saudi Arabia will try to contain Iranian power in Lebanon by curbing Hezbollah’s influence and seeing to it that the Sunnis preserve their political prerogatives.

This likely Saudi reaction will buy time for Taif, and indirectly for the Christians, but for how long? Ultimately, Sunnis would not lose much from a redistribution of the cards in the Lebanese political system, and could in the end find common ground with the Shiites. The Christians, with no regional sponsors of their own, are dispensable.

That is why Christian leaders must begin formulating a unified position on their future, something not easy at a time of Christian divisions, and in the shadow of a Maronite church led by a man devoid of political vision. But Patriarch Bishara al-Rai is not alone in meriting blame. The Christian political leadership seems thoroughly incapable of adopting a united stance to prepare the road ahead.

Instead, some Christian leaders imagine their salvation will come if Assad triumphs in Syria; others wager that Sunni-Shiite animosities will prevent any progress over a new political order. Perhaps in the short term such calculations may work, but not for long. Ultimately demographic realities will place Christian fortunes on the bargaining table, and Christian leaders must prepare for that inevitability.

American recognition of Iran’s regional role, even if it has only been implicit until now, will have far-reaching consequences. Iran is doubtless far ahead in the game, calculating what they can secure in the bazaar that follows any eventual final nuclear accord. Yet the Lebanese in general, and Christians in particular, are ill prepared for this phase, as they are for most challenges facing their country. 

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Obama’s policy on Iran will force the US to be more involved

The agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme last week alarmed many countries in the Middle East. The Obama administration views a breakthrough with Iran as a means of reducing regional tensions and avoiding a larger American commitment in the region. The consequences, however, may be precisely the opposite.

The Arab fear is that the scaling back of sanctions against Iran will free up money allowing the Islamic Republic to more easily finance its operations and allies throughout the region – including its military support for the Al Assad regime in Syria and for Hizbollah in Lebanon. Negotiations with Iran have focused on nuclear issues, but many Arab regimes would have liked to see the agenda expanded.

That is why when the Saudi foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, met his American counterpart John Kerry earlier this month, he sought to link the nuclear talks with Iranian intervention in Syria. By the same token, Arab states would have welcomed placing Hizbollah’s fate on the negotiating table, and believe that western economic leverage over Iran allowed for extracting more concessions from Tehran.

However, the United States has thought differently. Fearing that any insistence on broadening the negotiation agenda would undermine a nuclear deal, Mr Kerry has pushed back on such a strategy. “We are well aware of Iran’s activities in the region,” he has said, “but the first step is the nuclear step, which we hope will open the door to the possibility to be able to deal with those.”

The reality, however, is that few Arab states believe that Washington will carry through on such an engagement, or can make it work. They feel that once, or if, a nuclear accord is reached – the one last week was an interim arrangement – the Obama administration will have fewer instruments to impose a change in Iranian behaviour and will again revert to disengaging from the Middle East.

It’s difficult to disagree. President Obama’s policies in the region have mainly aimed at avoiding deeper implication. The president is rarely involved personally in the affairs of the region, in contrast to his immediate predecessors.

Mr Obama has manoeuvred like a gymnast to keep the Syrian crisis at arm’s length. After the Al Assad regime used chemical weapons in August, he embarrassed Mr Kerry and other administration officials by deciding at the last minute to abort an impending US attack against Syria, an attack they were defending publicly.

Even in the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, which Mr Obama had described as a priority when he was campaigning for the presidency in 2008, the president has been largely out of the picture, leaving Mr Kerry to move the process forward on his own.

There is a growing view that a nuclear deal with Iran would benefit so-called moderates in Iran – President Hassan Rouhani above all – who seek improved relations with the West. On the other hand, the more hard-line elements would likely be compensated by being given a stronger mandate to pursue Iran’s interests in the Arab world.

Acting on this belief and their scepticism that America will do anything to contain Iranian power, the Arab countries are likely to continue taking their own path in opposing Iran, coordinating increasingly less with the United States. But, given these states’ inherent vulnerabilities with respect to Iran, the nature of their responses may end up being deeply destabilising.

The natural tendency of the Arab countries is to support groups that are capable of fighting Iran’s proxies, that are motivated, and that have an ideology that sustains their ability to mobilise and recruit. All these point to favouring Islamists or Salafists, even if the Saudis are keen not to see Al Qaeda and its affiliates gaining in strength.

As regional support for Islamist groups has shown in Syria, the outcome can backfire. First of all, different countries have bolstered different groups, creating a fragmented Syrian opposition with contending allegiances. Second, such groups almost inevitably embark on conflicts based on religion, unleashing one of the most destructive forces in the region: sectarianism.

And third, it is difficult to rally international backing for any campaign led by Islamists and that heightens sectarian violence. This could widen the rift between western states and Arab regimes – hampering collective efforts to contain Iranian power.

These factors will not dissuade Arab leaders from favouring Islamist groups against Iran and its allies. This outcome will further exacerbate sectarian divisions around the region, playing to the advantage of extremists, even those opposed by Arab states. Such a situation almost guarantees that Arab insecurities, unless they are properly addressed, will lead to a worsening of regional instability.

Like it or hate it, the US has for over two decades been the primary political conductor in the Middle East, injecting an element of predictability into the region and preserving its balance of power. Mr Obama, by refusing to follow the lead of other administrations, has pushed regional states to pursue their interests whatever the cost, even as Washington fails to impose red lines on behaviour.

By resisting involving itself more deeply in Middle Eastern matters today, the Obama administration is only helping create a volatile environment that makes more probable its involvement tomorrow. That’s because as regional insecurity overwhelms America’s allies, it will be next to impossible for Washington to do nothing.

Foreign policy is not a menu from which one demurely chooses; it imposes sudden new situations with which decision-makers have to grapple and must turn to their advantage. Mr Obama hasn’t grasped this, and he doesn’t seem to appreciate that failing to address a range of regional disagreements with Iran may ultimately bring about the very situations the administration has been so eager to avoid.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Lebanon and Sicily offer cautionary tales for the region

Recently, my wife and I were visiting the Duomo, or cathedral, of Catania, in Sicily. Suddenly a man entered, stark naked, and walked toward a small chapel where an early evening mass was being held. He went up to a statue of the Virgin Mary and began to shake it vigorously, until several women chased him away.

The man walked back out, got dressed and was finally confronted by policemen. He lay down, refusing the police’s entreaties to come to their office and demanded to be arrested. After more minutes of hesitation, four policemen lifted him up off the ground and carried him away.

Had this occurred in most other European countries, or the United States, he would have been immediately arrested or harshly subdued. The Sicilians preferred to talk to him, avoiding an unseemly altercation and the drudgery of filing a police report. The law, as they saw it, was something flexible and negotiable.

 This was highly reminiscent of Lebanon, where I live. The superficial similarities between Lebanon and Sicily are many, not surprising for two lands on the Mediterranean. Sicily was founded by the Phoenicians, and similar to Lebanon, its history has been shaped by the many conquerors who have dominated its territory: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish Bourbons.

The habits and mores of both places are similar. Though their cultures are demonstrative, there is much subtlety in what is left unsaid, in codes of behaviour that may seem mysterious to outsiders.

Both are also traditional societies in which family ties and organised religion play an outsize role. Their peoples are attached to the land, but because of economic and social hardship, over time they have formed large and influential emigrant communities. And both are places of striking beauty and historical wealth, but where the parts tend to be more attractive than the whole, especially in urban areas.

They are places where people of talent have often been undone by old and unbending social structures. In the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia’s novel The Knight and Death, a character speaks of a power “we experienced, rather than really knew, a power that we can today define as completely criminal, but a power we can also, and paradoxically, say was in good health, always in the sense of crime, of course, in relation to the schizophrenic power of today.”

That power is the mafia, which dominated Sicilian society and made major inroads into the economy during the post-World War II decades. In Lebanon, institutionalised crime and corruption have also long been afflictions undermining economic development and the rule of law.

In Sicily, the mafia played a role similar to the sectarian leaders in Lebanon, although there are limits to that comparison. They benefited from a system anchored in society, which perpetuated their power and gave them a decisive advantage in profiting from the economy.

But there is also a major difference. In Lebanon the sectarian system, though a monumental source of corruption and patronage, has nevertheless reinforced social schizophrenia, so that the state is weaker than society. The system generated a form of pluralism that is in sharp contrast to the suffocating states elsewhere in the Arab world. This has been a reason for Lebanon’s paradoxical liberalism, which has thrived in the spaces created by the sectarian system, and by the rules of balance it has imposed on society and the political class. In Sicily, things were rather different. Mafia rule, direct or indirect, was anything but beneficial to an open, pluralistic order.

There is more to Lebanon than sectarianism, just as there is more to Sicily than the mafia. There was a courageous effort during the 1980s and early 1990s by Sicilian magistrates to dismantle the mafia system. Similarly, many Lebanese dislike the sectarian system. And yet, like many Sicilians at one time with regard to the mafia, they have been far more willing to adapt to it than they care to admit. The system is not built on a foundation of intimidation and murder, definitely, but it has proven remarkably resilient because it feeds off and reproduces durable Lebanese social relationships and rituals.

Both in Lebanon and Sicily, traditional ties have come to define and even hijack the economic system. If one knows the right people, the law is helpless to equalise markets or protect those in the way of the powerful.

Lebanon and Sicily are prime examples of places in which institutional evolution has been aborted, where the potential for advancement is great but where the record has been spotty. They are cautionary tales for other societies on the Mediterranean, several of which are going through political transformations at this moment. They often seem imprisoned between past and future, their most enduring trait being a tragic ability to swallow their own children.   

Thursday, November 21, 2013

US president Nixon complicit in East Pakistan genocide, author says

Imagine a country whose regime is engaged in the mass murder of its own citizens, forcing millions of refugees to flood across the borders, destabilising neighbouring states. The only solution to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis, it seems, is to bring the atrocities to an end, even if it means using military force.

It’s not Syria that we are talking about, but the equally momentous tragedy of East Pakistan in 1971, the subject of Gary J Bass’s The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, is also the author of a highly regarded book on the origins of humanitarian intervention titled Freedom’s Battle.

The Blood Telegram takes this interest in human rights and politics a fascinating step further. Bass examines the multiple dimensions of the East Pakistan conflict, which led to the Indian-Pakistani war of 1971, India’s victory in that war and the establishment of an independent Bangladesh. His work relies on years of research in the U S and Indian archives as well as on the Nixon White House tapes and memoirs from those years. He also interviewed many people involved in the events of 1971, or their relatives. This makes for a rich book, constantly shifting between Washington, New Delhi and Islamabad, all corners of the narrative expertly covered by the author.

For Bass, whom I interviewed by email, this “crushingly difficult” task was necessary because “people can’t begin to hold their government accountable if they don’t know the facts, and I think a lot of Americans will be shocked to hear what President Richard Nixon and [national security adviser, later secretary of state] Henry Kissinger were secretly doing”.

Bass’s topic is the genocide carried out by the Pakistani military regime of Yahya Khan in East Pakistan. In 1970, Pakistani parliamentary elections resulted in a majority for the Bengali-nationalist Awami League, led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, which sought autonomy for East Pakistan. The Bengali-speaking East Pakistanis had long been restless, feeling they were second-class citizens in a country run by West Pakistan’s Urdu-speaking elite.

This displeasure reached new heights when a cyclone hit East Pakistan in November 1970, killing more than 230,000 people. The response of the Pakistani authorities was lethargic — “It was almost as if they just didn’t care,” recalled Archer Blood, the American consul-general in Dacca (now Dhaka). When elections were held in December, the resentment helped fuel the Awami League’s sweeping victory.

Faced with a humiliating loss, President Yahya Khan indefinitely postponed the opening of the new national assembly in March 1971. On March 26, he ordered his army to carry out Operation Searchlight, a military intervention in East Pakistan that aimed to crush Bengali nationalism. Anywhere between a few hundred thousand to three million people were killed, while up to 10 million crossed into the Indian state of West Bengal, most of them Hindus who were a prime target of the Pakistani army, creating a refugee crisis of massive proportions. The Nixon administration, which viewed Khan as an ally in the Cold War, not only did nothing to stop the killing, it sided with Pakistan. “American presidents looked the other way in Bosnia or Rwanda,” says Bass. “But in Bangladesh, Nixon and Kissinger were actively supporting one side, which was the military government cracking down on its own civilian population. This wasn’t a story of passivity.” At the same time, Nixon and Kissinger illegally sent arms to the Pakistani government, even after the slaughter had begun and despite opposition in the US Congress.

There was something else. The president was preparing the American opening to China with Kissinger, and Khan was acting as the principal intermediary with Beijing. The Americans feared that any pressure to end the killing would derail their Chinese strategy.

While few would disapprove of the advantageous consequences of the Sino-American rapprochement, Bass has some reservations. “We tend to remember only the positive side of the ledger. We shouldn’t forget how many Bengalis died or became refugees as collateral damage for the opening to China,” he says.

Bass believes that “in democratic countries, foreign policy isn’t just the dictate of the king or president, but also a reflection of what that society believes in”. A theme in his book is how two democracies, India and the United States, found themselves on opposite sides of a conflict with deep moral implications, and how America’s choices provoked a crisis of conscience among some American officials. Bass explains: “The United States, like other major democracies, has its own particular national security priorities, but also has a liberal ideology that champions human rights everywhere, and a free domestic system where citizens can mobilise for helping foreigners.”

In East Pakistan, the American duality between the amoral pursuit of national interests and moral aspirations led to unintended consequences. Among those shocked at the time by Nixon’s and Kissinger’s conduct was Blood, the consul-general. With other staff members at the Dacca consulate, he sent a blistering cable of dissent to the State Department condemning US policy. It would become known as “the Blood telegram” — a term both literally and figuratively apt.

The cable affirmed: “Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities … Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy, ironically at a time when the USSR sent President Yahya [Khan]a message defending democracy, condemning arrest of the leader of a democratically elected majority party (incidentally, pro-West) and calling for an end to repressive measures and bloodshed.”

The telegram enraged the president and secretary of state, and ensured that Blood would never get an ambassadorship. After he was recalled from Dacca, the diplomat was banished to the State Department’s personnel office. Many years later, his wife would lament her husband’s professional fate to Bass, and add: “For some reason, they thought it could be kept quiet. All of those killings.”

He was not alone. The US ambassador to India, Kenneth Keating, was equally incensed by what he was seeing. However, as a former Republican representative and senator, he was more difficult to silence and boldly confronted Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office. Keating warned them that their Pakistani ally was committing genocide. Both would wince at the ambassador’s defiance, and after he had left the room they “never mentioned the accusation of genocide, nor expressed a hint of compassion for the Hindus or the refugees”, Bass writes in his book.

American collaboration with Yahya Khan was possible, Bass believes, because the public was consumed with Vietnam. “Americans were eager to get the troops back home,” he says. “Nixon was very canny and very effective about branding those who spoke up for the Bengalis … as dragging America into another civil war in Asia. That was the last thing that public opinion would have accepted in 1971.”

How strange that Nixon and Kissinger, who together had helped undermine the Paris peace talks on Vietnam in 1968, fearing a deal would hand the Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey an election victory, could usurp that argument with a straight face. Tens of thousands of Americans and many more Vietnamese would die because of the delay they had shamefully brought about, before they later accepted virtually the same conditions on the table in 1968.

That same callousness was on full display in East Pakistan, culminating in a confrontation with India, for which both men had ill-concealed contempt. Nixon did not like India’s closeness to the Soviet Union and had not forgotten that Indira Gandhi, a notoriously aloof politician, had treated him discourteously while he was on a visit to India when he was languishing in the political wilderness.

This hostility against India led Washington to take decisions that were both irresponsible and duplicitous. Kissinger encouraged the Chinese to deploy troops near the Indian border in the event of an Indian attack against Pakistan. The only problem is that this might have led to a dangerous altercation with the Soviet Union, since India would likely have asked for Moscow’s assistance. The Chinese, realising the risks, never fulfilled the American wishes.

Most disgraceful, Kissinger had given assurances to senior India officials, including Gandhi, that the US would stand with India against threats of Chinese aggression. Nothing was said of American threats, however, when, as India’s army advanced in East Pakistan, Nixon ordered the USS Enterprise to the Bay of Bengal to intimidate the Indians and prevent an attack against West Pakistan. Gandhi, having achieved her objectives, ended the war, but would not soon forget what the United States had done.

It would take a long time for US-Indian relations to recover from those bitter months. America’s behaviour, says Bass, meant “alienating the world’s biggest democracy for decades”. Today, this may sound odd, given America’s troubled relationship with Pakistan and its reliance on a strong India in South Asia.

Bass’s skill in unravelling the complex strands of what he sees as largely an “antiheroic story” is admirable. Most importantly, it shows that when crimes are committed, principle can sometimes triumph. But not always.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Typhoon Assad and Western indifference

You can sympathize with Syrians looking longingly at the extended coverage in Western media of the humanitarian catastrophe in the Philippines caused by Typhoon Haiyan. When it comes to Syria, no such concern is evident. There is an assumption that saving the Syrian people from their regime only means reinforcing Al-Qaeda.

Recently, a Lebanese friend in Paris told me how he had participated in a roundtable on Syria at which Americans and Europeans were present. He defended the uprising against President Bashar Assad, but his audience was in a very different frame of mind. Their questions and comments, he recalled, showed they associated all the opposition with extreme jihadism. He eventually could take no more and, his voice rising, reminded his listeners that an innocent population was suffering, regardless of Al-Qaeda.

Credit Assad with reading quite well the Western mindset. He pushed the Al-Qaeda button from the outbreak of the revolt against his rule, and very soon Western publics believed that Assad was a brave secularist resisting a return to the dark ages. That this was the same man who headed the most sectarian of regimes, whose army and intelligence services performed with such unspeakable sectarian barbarity that they provoked a sectarian response from their victims, was lost on most people in the West.

Assad understood that one front in his war had to be fought over Western public opinion. This would determine the reaction of the U.S. and European governments, whose armies could destroy his. He repressed the early peaceful protests in blood, producing a military response from the opposition. Once the uprising became militarized, Assad grasped, it would quickly become more radicalized. This would do two things: it would confirm his claim that his regime was fighting armed Islamists; and it would spread panic among his Alawite brethren and other minorities, guaranteeing their continued solidarity with the regime.

Not surprisingly, on the ground the regime has also given a wide berth to the most extreme jihadist groups, letting them gain ground and sowing dissension among rebels. Western publics, little concerned by the details and utterly credulous when it comes to the media’s jihadist focus, has swallowed the Assad version hook, line and sinker.

This has been compounded by the peerless incompetence of the Syrian opposition. Whether it is the leaders in exile or those on the ground inside Syria, they never appreciated how much the narrative matters. Rather than concentrating on unifying their fragmented ranks and speaking with one message and voice to the outside world, they have been caught up in internecine disputes, with each political and armed group pursuing a parochial agenda.

But not everything can be blamed on the opposition. The images from Syria have shown a far more complex picture. Not a day seems to go by without new images of civilians, many of them children, killed or injured in government bombardments or retaliation by the regime’s thugs. One can become inured to violence after a while, but something is profoundly wrong when this sense of hopelessness is transformed into indifference of the kind that greeted the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons last August. In opinion polls, majorities in the West opposed punitive military action by their governments, even if the regime had used chemical weapons.

When societies cannot be bothered by mass murder occurring elsewhere, then a perilous threshold has been crossed. Americans and Europeans are not obliged to empathize with Syrians, but somehow when room is left only to debate the economy, health insurance, and gay marriage, it doesn’t say much about a society’s commitment to its stated humanitarian values. One cannot in the same breath loudly lament the killing of some 3,000 civilians on Sept. 11, 2001, and yet say that nothing can be done at all about a regime responsible for the death of an estimated 36 times that number since 2011.

Young Americans and Europeans are brought up on the memory of the Holocaust, particularly the complicity of many societies in Europe with the slaughter of Jews during World War II. One theme that keeps coming back is how blameworthy were those who preferred to look the other way on the crimes that were being perpetuated.

Even if the Syrian situation is different, there has been an underlying self-centeredness in Western societies to avoid facing the humanitarian outrage in Syria, and this has led to a hardness when considering the situation. As my friend said to his audience, Al-Qaeda or no Al-Qaeda, suffering is suffering. To justify one’s lack of concern on the grounds that one fears the jihadists is no more than a convenient means to assuage an uneasy conscience.

Who would be surprised if one day this attitude in the West pushes embittered young Syrians to strike back through violence. That’s not to say that they would be justified, but one can anticipate their anger. When Western societies portray themselves as paragons of virtue, against reality, they engage in the highest form of hypocrisy.

Friday, November 15, 2013

After Suleiman, a deluge of maneuvers

It is rare for the Lebanese to be on time for anything, but give them an election and they will arrive before deadline. The presidential election may be nearly six months away, but already the different political forces are getting into position, their aim to ensure that whoever succeeds President Michel Suleiman will advance, or at least not harm, their political agenda.

In the tortuous logic of Lebanese politics, Suleiman’s repeated assertions that he does not want an extension seems, in fact, virtual confirmation that he would accept one if asked – unlike Fouad Chehab, say. The rather unkind comment that Suleiman aspires to be an excellent former president doesn’t square with the fact that this most inconspicuous of men has been propelled from pinnacle to pinnacle in a county that has frustrated more talented men, and he almost certainly wants the ride to continue.

But the different political forces are already thinking of alternatives. It has been clear for some months that Hezbollah has had enough of Suleiman. The president has taken positions opposed to those of the party, and so Hezbollah wants to bring in someone more willing to toe its line and who owes the party for bringing him to power.

That someone, by most accounts, is Jean Kahwaji, the army commander. The recent extension of Kahwaji’s term as commander, though justified by the need to avoid a vacuum at the head of the army, was also more than that: a way of ensuring that he remained in a position of influence to facilitate his elevation to the presidency.

Hezbollah believes that it can win a majority in parliament when elections come around next year, because it has every intention of pushing through a favorable election law. The train wreck that took place a few months ago within March 14 when it came to agreeing a consensual law shows that Hezbollah is probably right in anticipating that it can impose the law that it wants.

If successful, the party could win a majority in parliament, with its allies, thereby naming the speaker; by then it might have brought in a friendly president; and its parliamentary majority would allow it to appoint a friendly prime minister, in that way giving Hezbollah control over the three branches of government.

There is one fly in the ointment of this scheme: Michel Aoun. Nearing 80 and in erratic health, Aoun still wants desperately to be president, but knows that Hezbollah is not on board with this. That is why the general took positions critical of the party some months ago, even if he has toned down his rhetoric lately.

But Aoun is not yet finished. His parliamentarians met with Future parliamentarians last week, a move that reportedly alarmed several politicians and political groups, including Suleiman and Hezbollah. Future, sensing Hezbollah’s intentions, is looking to play on the rift that the presidential election may cause between Aoun and Hezbollah.

One Future parliamentarian is even speaking of a consensus around a new troika, whereby the bloc would support an Aoun presidency, Saad Hariri would return as prime minister, and Nabih Berri would remain as speaker. Indeed, some see the Future-Change and Reform meeting as a potential step in this direction, even if the meeting was a preliminary one and most probably a trial balloon by both sides.

On the other hand, the fact that it took place suggests that Future’s attitude toward Aoun, whether for tactical reasons or otherwise, is changing. Then again if Future ever decides to endorse Aoun, it will find quite a few people opposed to this, including allies in March 14.

It is highly unlikely that Samir Geagea would go along with such a choice. He backed the destructive Orthodox proposal in order to avoid a new electoral thrashing of the Lebanese Forces at the hands of the Aounists, which the 1960 law would have brought about. To expect him to back an Aoun presidency now, particularly when Geagea himself has shown signs of having presidential ambitions, seems illusory.

Then there is Walid Jumblatt. He has never been particularly comfortable with a popular Maronite as president, as this threatens his own hold over the Christians in the Chouf and Aley districts. The Jumblatts have sought to play the role of presidential kingmaker, but an Aoun presidency would decidedly not be made in Mukhtara.

And then there is Hezbollah, with Jean Kahwaji in its scabbard. This trio would make for an interesting coalition, dead set on sinking Aoun’s chances – not to mention Suleiman, even if his influence over the succession process is limited. Nevertheless, the president does have the capacity to complicate Aoun’s presidential project.

One element that will enter into the debate is that a Kahwaji presidency would imply that no Maronite other than the army commander can seriously aspire to become head of state. Many in the political class do not want to send such a message. Kahwaji could suffer and it is difficult to imagine that Geagea and Jumblatt, as hostile as they are to Aoun, would be indifferent to this.

We’re still months ahead of agreement over a new president, if agreement there is. But sometimes prescience serves a useful purpose. With Lebanon unable to afford a political vacuum in the presidency, and the absence of a government not likely to be settled before May, at least some are looking for a way out of the woods.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Spectre of Hizbollah hangs heavily over talks with Iran

Iran and the major western powers failed last week to arrive at a deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Given the stakes, the negotiating process will resume and an arrangement will probably be reached. However, tensions between Iran and its adversaries transcend the nuclear question, and unless some means is found to address them, many regional governments will be left dangerously dissatisfied.

A salient problem is what to do with the Iranian-backed Hizbollah, which has acted as a foreign legion of sorts for the Islamic Republic in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. With its global network of members and influence in Shia communities worldwide, the party offers a valuable instrument of influence to Iran.

For that reason alone, Iran is likely to resist any broadening of the negotiating agenda with the west to include Hizbollah. Tehran will argue that Hizbollah is a Lebanese party and, as such, it has no say over its future. Yet Hizbollah has become an impediment in relations between the west and Iran, not least because both the Americans and Europeans have placed the party on their respective lists of terrorist organisations. Iran cannot evade the issue indefinitely.

Some might argue that Hizbollah is tolerable to all sides, given the desire in Washington, Brussels, and Tehran for a nuclear agreement. Others will point out that until a nuclear deal is reached, it is pointless to discuss other matters. Indeed, such a deal would create the mutual confidence necessary to conclude further arrangements later.

Both arguments are to an extent true, but real normalisation will at some point require contending with Hizbollah. The ultimate question is whether Hizbollah becomes a matter of negotiations between the west and the Iranians or not. The United States and the Europeans can exploit their crippling economic leverage over Iran by insisting that the party must be on the table, or else the improvement in relations with Iran will suffer.

What would the objectives of such negotiations be? Would they aim to disband Hizbollah entirely? To have the party surrender its weapons to the Lebanese state? To have it suspend all activities overseas, from planting bombs on tourist buses to dispatching combatants throughout the Middle East? Each represents great difficulties.

The first, the complete dissolution of Hizbollah, is an ambition too far, given the party’s genuine anchoring in Lebanese Shia society. At any rate, it is the party’s weapons, not its existence, that are a problem for its foes in Lebanon and throughout the region.

More achievable is a formula that disarms Hizbollah, while adopting a strategy that can speak to the Shia fear of future attacks by Israel. This has been the focus of the sterile dialogue to reach a Lebanese national defence strategy. One reason it has failed is that Hizbollah seeks only to preserve its weapons for Iran, not arrive at a modus vivendi to reassure its compatriots who feel threatened by the party.

The third means, to suspend Hizbollah’s military activities outside Lebanon might satisfy the West in principle but it will have marginal impact in Lebanon and the Arab world, where there is no faith that such a vague promise can be effectively implemented. It’s difficult to verify that a party is not doing something, and monitoring Hizbollah is never easy.

A principal merit of discussing Hizbollah’s future is to reassure the Arab states, and even Israel, who are suspicious of the current talks with Iran. This opposition, as much from the Saudis as from the Israelis, could undermine a broader understanding between the west and Iran. A consensus over Hizbollah would improve a range of issues, not least the sectarianism deriving from Saudi fears of Iran.

In addition, a nuclear deal, by neutralising the possibility of an American or Israeli assault against Iran, will mean it becomes less necessary to have an armed Hizbollah in place to act as a deterrent. This may push Iran to reconsider its priorities, and determine that maintaining an armed group viewed in the west and in much of the Arab world as a threat will turn into a long-term liability – one that defines Iran in a way the country no longer wishes to be defined.

That is why the preferable thing is for the western countries to reach general agreement among themselves and with the Arab states, then present a unified position to the Iranians. The most sensible option is that Hizbollah hand over its weapons to the Lebanese state and disband its military institutions, but not its political and social institutions, in exchange for integrating Hizbollah combatants into an army that embraces a defence strategy acceptable to all Lebanese.

If so, the western and Arab goal could help bolster a domestic Lebanese dialogue over such a strategy, but this time one that addresses the anxieties among Hizbollah’s foes, not that becomes an empty framework to avoid progress on disarming Hizbollah. Iran can and should play a central role in this process, as its participation alone would help ensure a successful outcome.

It may be too soon to expect far-reaching results when it comes to Hizbollah. But by placing the topic on the agenda now for discussion, and insisting that it cannot be avoided, the western and Arab nations would underline its importance as a prerequisite for a major improvement in their relations with Iran.

Hizbollah has been a great asset to Iran in recent decades. Decisions taken at its expense will be resisted by powerful sectors in the Iranian system. But the party speaks to an identity that, in a not too distant future, Iran may want to – have to – abandon. Now is the time to show Tehran that Hizbollah is a luxury it may no longer be able to afford.