Supporters wave Hezbollah and Syrian regime flags.
Supporters wave Hezbollah and Syrian regime flags as Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah addresses thousands of supporters by video during the sixth anniversary of Second Lebanon war. Photo by Reuters
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The latest spate of kidnappings and sectarian street-fighting in Lebanon has a depressing familiarity to it, though some are already saying that it is petering out. But whether or not that it is true, it is almost certain that we will be focusing more on Lebanon in the coming weeks and months, as both the Iranian nuclear saga and the Syrian revolution continue to unfold.

Israelis and Iranians continue to live their lives as the level of threat fluctuates almost daily, and in Syria, while the fighting has intensified in the two main cities of Damascus and Aleppo, the opposition is no closer to presenting a unified front that is capable of overthrowing Bashar Assad.

So why is the tension spreading to Lebanon just now? There are always local and prosaic reasons for bloodshed to occur in the Land of the Cedars, but wider outside factors are at work. Iran and Syria are closely interested in every Lebanese development, and as sponsors or patrons of some of the main players, they are trying to manipulate events. The visit to Beirut by Saeed Jalili, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and special adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, should not be overlooked. Jalili said upon landing that “we respect Lebanon because of its resistance and the prominent role it plays with regards to the region’s security and stability.” He certainly is aware of that role and the timing of the outbreak of violence - so soon after Jalili’s departure - is an interesting coincidence.

Lebanon is seen by Iran above all as an asset, a satellite it has dominated for the last few years through Hezbollah and in concert with Syria, which has always regarded its smaller neighbor as a fiefdom. Hezbollah has not been involved, at least openly, in the recent fighting. The belligerents have been local Sunni, Shi'ite and Alawite groups, and Hezbollah has joined the calls for calm. But no one is forgetting that the Shi'ite movement is the largest fighting force in the country, bigger than the Lebanese Army, part of which it controls anyway. Hezbollah ultimately can determine the height of the flames, and in doing so will be serving Iranian and Syrian interests.

Iran has two urgent objectives – one is preventing an Israeli or American strike on its nuclear program before the U.S. presidential elections, thus gaining more time to dig in and fortify the uranium enrichment project; the second is to keep propping up the Assad regime, in the hope that when his departure becomes inevitable they will have more of a say in the country's future. Losing control over Syria, in an axis that extends through Shi'ite-ruled Iraq, means also losing control of Lebanon. Now is Iran's time to use its levers of power in Lebanon to divert attention away from Syria and from the centrifuges in Fordo.

Increasing unrest in Lebanon could give Tehran more cards to play – Beirut is closer to the West, not only geographically, and many Western journalists who cannot travel to Syria and Iran are based there. While the Obama administration has prevented Iran from taking part in the international discussions over the future of Syria, in any Lebanese-related scenario, it will have a direct say through Hezbollah. Bringing Lebanon into play could give Assad more time, as Turkey and other regional powers such as Saudi Arabia who are aiding the Syrian rebels in various ways are forced into pause rather than allowing a wider conflagration. And of course turmoil in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has over 4,000 Iranian-supplied missiles trained southwards, adds pressure on Israel as it contemplates a long-range attack.