Has Collapse of Lebanon Government Weakened Iran and Hezbollah Influence?

Hezbollah and Iran's guiding hand is still looking for a grip in Beirut, but rather than strengthening the Shiites, the collapse of the government and ouster of Saad Hariri has weakened their influence.

The joint statement by Lebanon and Bahrain stating that the two countries will not participate this year in the Venice Biennale "because of the events in the Middle East" is an almost natural continuation of the special cooperation the two have recently created. But both countries have a problem that is slightly more menacing than the Biennale: a Shiite majority serving as a lever for Iranian intervention and the mutual fear of the benefits that Iran could gain from developments there.

Last week it was the turn of Saad Hariri, who is still serving as prime minister of the transition government, to attack Tehran.

Hariri, Kabbani, Mikati - Reuters

"We don't want Lebanon to be a protege of Iran," he said, "Just as we don't want our brothers in Bahrain, Kuwait or any other Arab country to be under Iranian patronage. We belong to this nation which rests on its Arabism in the past, present and future, and we'll prove that we don't need any other nationality."

Hariri made his statement at a convention of Saudi and Lebanese businessmen in Beirut. "One of the major challenges that the Arab societies are facing is the political, military and economic intervention of Iran," he added, saying that it damaged "the social fabric of the region."

Hariri, who had to step down from his post as prime minister last January when President Michel Suleiman turned to the billionaire Najib Mikati to form a new government, has apparently freed himself from the shackles of political correctness vis-a-vis Hezbollah and Iran.

In November 2010, when he asked Tehran to assist him in maintaining stability in Lebanon, the Iranian newspapers reported that "Hariri's visit to Tehran is an example of the closeness between Iran and Lebanon and a sign of the failure of the policies of the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel that were aimed at creating tension in the region."

The visit, they said, symbolized a new era in the ties between the two countries.

This new era was shattered last week as Iran and Hezbollah responded to Hariri's new tack by saying he was serving the interests of the U.S. and Israel.

"Hariri's accusations against Iran were meant to cover up the American intervention in Libya and other countries," they said.

The exchange of barbs between Hariri and Hezbollah and Iran are not being made in a vacuum, but rather against the backdrop of a deeply divided country that has been without a government for three months.

The establishment of a new government was supposed to mark the apex of political success for Iran and Hezbollah's Hassan Nassrallah, who considered Hariri's ouster a major step toward stymieing the international tribunal into Rafik Hariri's assassination. With Hezbollah in power, the group could protect its members from prosecution and push through a new election law and a change in the ethnic balance of power in Lebanon.

Hezbollah's agreement to the appointment of Najib Mikati was supposed to put an end to the endless argument over the status of the weapons that Hezbollah has in its possession, especially after Hariri's unusual call last month for the group to disarm.

However, beyond that, the new government is supposed to be based on representation of ethnic groups and political streams so that it will have legitimacy in the eyes of the public and not appear as a Hezbollah and Iran puppet.

Mikati, the head of a giant business conglomerate and an excellent negotiator, is now facing an especially difficult task. He understands that setting up a government in Lebanon is a great deal more complicated than appointing a board of directors. One sticking point is the appointment of the interior minister, a post coveted by all camps. Hezbollah wants the position in order to control internal security, decide on moves vis-a-vis the international tribunal, and to shape a new election law to right what they see as an injustice done to Shiites.

Now Mikati also has Iran in the mix, after Hariri placed it on his table and decided on Lebanon's attitude toward Tehran. Mikati has explained that "expressing positions about Iran that do not reflect Lebanon's position is not effective," in other words, it would be best for Hariri to keep quiet. The self-imposed silence by Suleiman, though, who has so far not responded to the exchanges between Hariri and Iran, is making it difficult for Mikati to decide on Lebanon's foreign policy.

Meanwhile pressure is mounting on Mikati to set up a government posthaste. Hezbollah's Christian partner, Gen. Michel Aoun, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, has called on Mikati "to establish a government immediately or to resign from the job."

Aoun, who is demanding 12 of the 30 cabinet posts for his movement, has already proven in the past that he is not willing to make compromises on portfolios with political or economic influence.

This crisis, together with the violent crackdown in Syria, has put Hezbollah in an uncomfortable political position; when there is no government, there is no one on whom to exert pressure, there is no one from whom to "demand a price," and there is no way to promote its political interests.

Hezbollah, which long ago transformed from a loose collective into a political party, needs a country which is functioning in order to strengthen its status, but it itself is holding up that very process.