Iran in Lebanon: The U.S. Role, lack thereof

As pro-Israel and/or Iran hawks have been having conniptions about Iranian influence via Hezbollah in Lebanon, it’s worth noting that this is a U.S. demon created in part by the U.S.’s own actions — or inactions — as it were.

In a short piece for Foreign Affairs, University of Maryland doctoral student and former Brookings researcher Bilal Saab writes that U.S. disengagement from Lebanon — during most of the 1980s, 1990s and half of the ’00s — created a vacuum that Hezbollah, with Iranian support, was able to fill.

“Left exposed, Lebanon could not prevent Iran from projecting its power through Hezbollah, which evolved from its original state as an unexceptional guerilla force into a highly professional and well-armed paramilitary organization,” he observes.

Eli has a piece coming up on this issue, so I don’t want to say too much. But there are also two other very important moments of inaction that have created Hezbollah’s continued ascent: the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2003 Iranian outreach that went ignored by the Bush Administration.

On the former, Saab writes (with my emphasis):

How could all of Lebanon’s accomplishments since 2005, to which Washington contributed, be so quickly undone? The United States is partly to blame for the situation, having made several mistakes itself in Lebanon over the past few years — most significantly, demonstrating reluctance to intervene promptly and forcefully to prevent Israel from using excessive military force against Lebanon during its summer 2006 conflict with Hezbollah. Not only did Israel’s military campaign fail to enhance Israeli security — a primary American concern — but it strengthened Hezbollah and undermined the pro-American Lebanese government then led by Fouad Siniora.

On the latter point — the Bush Administration’s refusal to start a diplomatic process with Iran in 2003, at the height of neoconservative power — Saab writes the U.S. needs to bring the issue of Hezbollah up in any potential U.S.-Iran talks. He says (my emphasis, again):

The United States… may need to constrain Hezbollah for the long-term through other means — namely, initiating a strategic dialogue with Iran. Back in 2003, the Iranians privately offered to discuss matters related to Hezbollah with the United States in return for undisclosed security guarantees, but the Bush administration chose to ignore them.

Saab (who I believe is Lebanese given his academic background), clearly writes from a very anti-Iran, anti-Hezbollah, and anti-Syria perspective. Nonetheless, his historical perspectives and astute analysis provide some counterpoints to the hawks’ braying about Ahmadinejad in Southern Lebanon. Some of these same hawks, and certainly their ideological comrades, were in power when the two cited decisions were undertaken. And by their ideological rigidity — inability to criticize Israel and/or refusal to engage Iran — they’ve contributed to creating their own worst nightmare on Israel’s norther border.

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Ali Gharib

Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.