BEIRUT, Lebanon, July 15 (UPI) -- Iran does not need to have boots on the ground in Lebanon to show how much influence it has. Its proxy, the heavily-armed Hezbollah, has gained enough military and political strength over the years to emerge as a master player.
As they helplessly watch their country galloping toward collapse, the Lebanese population is divided over Hezbollah's dominance and Iran's ambitions. Many fear a possible settlement of Lebanon's crisis will only benefit Tehran and consecrate its influence.
It wouldn't be the first time that Lebanon is left in the hands of an outside power to fix its problems and manage its complex political situation. Syria was entrusted to do so for long years after it consolidated its military presence and imposed itself as the most powerful player -- a role that ended two months after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in an explosion that targeted his convoy on Feb. 14, 2005.
The vacuum left by departing Syria was soon filled by the country's most powerful party, Hezbollah, backed by its patron Iran.
"Hezbollah is a master player in Lebanon. Of course, there are other players, but they are junior players. The decisive political actor in Lebanon is Hezbollah," Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut, told UPI.
Khashan explained that the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006 eventually put Hezbollah fully in control of Lebanon. The Qatar-mediated "Doha Agreement" in 2008, which ended 18 months of political deadlock and averted civil war, made Hezbollah stronger, shifting power in its favor, including the ability to veto Cabinet decisions.
"This Doha agreement gave Hezbollah full control over Lebanese politics. It wasn't difficult for them because of the fragmented nature of politics," Khashan said. "Nothing can happen in Lebanon unless Hezbollah gives its okay literally, and when it comes to decision-making, Hezbollah controls Lebanon, and Iran through Hezbollah controls Lebanon."
Hezbollah scored a major victory when it imposed the election of a powerful Christian ally, former Army commander Gen. Michel Aoun, as president in October 2016 after the post remained vacant for 29 months.
In a recent research paper titled "How Hezbollah holds sway over the Lebanese state," Lina Khatib, director of Chatham House's Middle East and North Africa program, explained how Hezbollah has risen to become the most influential political organization in Lebanon, by spreading its influence throughout the Lebanese state, from the presidency to representative political institutions and the civil service, as well as the military and security institutions.
Khatib noted that Hezbollah "enjoys legitimacy within the Lebanese state, but is able to operate without the accountability required of a state institution and without full responsibility to the Lebanese people."
She attributed Hezbollah's growing influence to several factors, including the fact that it is benefiting from "a reliable external patron, Iran" and exploiting weaknesses in the Lebanese state.
Toufic Shouman, a political analyst once close to Hezbollah, argued that the militant group, which was formed in the early 1980s to battle Israeli occupation of Lebanon, was not just relying on its military force.
"It enjoys wide popular support and is represented in the parliament and the Cabinet... Thus, it has the power to influence political decision-making in Lebanon," Shouman told UPI. "Such a popular representation reflects without doubt an Iranian influence in the country."
He, however, argues that as much as this is true about Iran, "this applies to other regional and international forces, which also enjoy influence in Lebanon."
Spreading the blame
Despite its popularity among mainly its Shiite community, Hezbollah did not escape the wrath of the protesters who took to the streets in October 2019 to denounce the ruling elite. The group and its chief, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, were blamed for the first time in public for corruption and mismanagement like all the other political actors.
Many have also accused Hezbollah and its Amal movement ally of foiling the popular uprising, by sending supporters on motorcycles shouting "Shiite, Shiite" to intimidate anti-government protesters, beating them up and smashing their protest camps.
But what Nasrallah is mostly blamed for is that he hasn't used his influence to push through reforms and help form a new government to stop the country's deterioration. Critics accused him of benefiting from the crisis to consolidate Iran's position at the Vienna nuclear talks.
The Hezbollah leader has denied such claims, arguing that it cannot impose its will on the other powers in the country, and instead accused the United States of being behind the crisis, besieging the Lebanese people and depriving them of international help.
"There is no doubt in my mind if Hezbollah wants to form a cabinet, we will have a cabinet tomorrow," said Khashan, referring to a nine-month cabinet formation deadlock as the country further plunges into multiple crises.
Prime minister-designate Saad Hariri has been unable to form a new government, blaming continued obstruction on Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement. Both are close allies of Hezbollah.
Khashan, however, maintained that all political factions are not really interested in forming a cabinet that would implement meaningful economic and financial reforms, thus "exposing the extent of the corruption of the Lebanese ruling elite who would be then held accountable."
While Hezbollah did not create the current economic and financial crisis, its involvement in the Syria war and cross-border smuggling, alliances with the country's corrupt political elite and its antagonism of the Gulf countries have added to Lebanon's ordeal and pushed its traditional Gulf and Western friends to isolate it.
While Lebanon is struggling to survive, attention is focused on Iran's nuclear talks in Vienna amid mounting fears of their outcome on the ailing country.
"I don't think Lebanon will be given as a prize for Iran... It is more complex than that, as there are other powers who have influence, too, and cannot be eliminated," Shouman said. "In any upcoming settlement, Iran will have a strong presence but a balanced one with other regional forces, mainly Saudi Arabia, through an international consensus."
Khashan said the greatest obstacle at the Vienna talks is not the Iranian nuclear program but Iran's regional influence and proxy militias.
"Iran does not face its enemies. It uses militias to fight on its behalf... the Americans in Iraq. In Yemen, they harass Saudi Arabia by using the Houthis. In Syria, it brought Pakistani and Afghani Shiites, while in Lebanon it relies on Hezbollah," he said.
As the crisis between Iran and the United States is not resolved, Lebanon will have to wait until the Vienna talks are concluded.
"I don't know what the U.S. wants to do with Lebanon. But I know Lebanon needs to be pacified," Khashan said. "It all depends on Russia's involvement... if the Americans want the Russians to move in in order to curtail Iran's influence in Lebanon."
Mona Fayad, an anti-Hezbollah political activist, politologist and professor in psychology at the Lebanese University, said if the United States and Iran reach an agreement, it won't necessarily lead to Lebanon being handed over to Iran.
"If they don't agree, there will be a strong opposition and violence... Nor Hezbollah nor Iran will easily accept to relinquish Lebanon," Fayad, a Shiite, told UPI. "After all, to most Lebanese, Iran is not an attractive model. Even their Shiite supporters know how bad the situation is there."