defusing of a major political crisis in Lebanon this week after Hezbollah
paused a bellicose campaign against its main domestic critic offered a rare
glimpse of Iran’s capacity to back down when an escalation comes to the verge
of an outcome beyond its control.
Although the rough school of Lebanese politics is in different league to the US-Iran tensions, Beirut is an interlinking piece in a geopolitical chain comprised of Iranian-backed militia proxies. Their tactics often reflect strategic moves of their backers in Tehran.
In this case Iran appears to have blinked. Its rivals united and held their ground against Hezbollah pressure, which kept mounting to the point of possibly putting off western donors crucial for any economic recovery.
At the center of the crisis has been Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. His backstage stewardship has been crucial to the survival of Lebanon’s small but established Druze community and to the perseverance of a western-backed anti-Hezbollah bloc hit by the rising regional power of Iranian proxies.
In Paris last year, mostly western donors pledged $11 billion (Dh40.4bn) for an economic rescue package but demanded fundamental reforms first. As yet Lebanon has mostly not delivered, partly a reflection of the contradictions in a political system dominated by Hezbollah as the only armed, non-state actor.
The crisis jeopardized the prospects of this cash infusion, raising fears of an economic collapse and a run on what many consider an overvalued Lebanese pound reeling under public debt that stands at one-and-half times the gross domestic product.
In this doomsday scenario, which could prompt sectarian tensions breaking into the open, among the worst hit financially would be Tehran’s Shiite constituency in Lebanon, which doubles as Hezbollah’s core recruitment base.
For decades Hezbollah had played on what it terms the marginalization and lack of economic opportunity for Shiites, who comprise an estimated 28 per cent of Lebanon’s estimated 6 million population.
Hezbollah and its allies have tried to bring down Jumblatt for two years, cutting him out of the backroom political deals that are the hallmark of Lebanon’s divided, and sectarian, polity.
When that failed, pro-Hezbollah Druze factions initiated what amounted to armed incursions in the Chouf Mountains, the heartland of the Druze, in an apparent bid to stoke violence within the community.
In one such move last year a Jumblatt supporter was killed. In the latest, on June 30 two bodyguards of a pro-Hezbollah junior Druze minister were killed and two Jumblatt supporters were wounded. The shoot-out became known as the Basateen incident.
Walid Jumblatt, right, and Samir Geagea attend the commemoration in 2006 of the first anniversary of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri's assassination.
Geagea leads the Lebanese Forces, a former militia turned political party that has four members in the 30-member cabinet, which convened on Saturday after Jumblatt, Hariri, Aoun and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri held what was billed as a reconciliation meeting.
The Basateen case has now been put on the back burner, having been handed over to a military tribunal divided along pro and anti-Hezbollah lines.
Hezbollah retreated only when the damage to its own interests outweighed the benefits from its violent tactics, suggesting its Tehran backers read situations rationally when the costs become too high.