BEIRUT: The resumption of direct contact between the United States and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program and the deal over Syria’s chemical arsenal could open up a window to resolving Lebanon’s intractable political divide, experts and analysts said.
But some doubted that a settlement of Iran’s nuclear file would lead to a grand bargain with its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, the other major patron in Lebanon, predicting that the country’s political impasse could drag on as a result and warning of the dangers of an ongoing political vacuum.
“Lebanon is a victim of geopolitics,” said Hilal Khashan, professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
The U.S. and Iran appeared last week to be inching toward a rapprochement in the aftermath of the U.N. General Assembly meetings in New York. Presidents Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani held a phone conversation, the first between the estranged nations’ leaders since the Islamic Revolution overthrew the U.S.-backed shah in 1979.
Imad Salamey, associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University, said Lebanon could be the scene of confidence-building measures between Iran and the West.
“Perhaps Lebanon will be a testing ground for goodwill,” he said.
The first such test would be the formation of a Cabinet. Lebanon has languished without a functioning government since Prime Minister Najib Mikati stepped down in March.
“It doesn’t take much to form a government if the will is there, and it will prove to be a gesture of goodwill by every party of the conflict,” he said.
But he warned that the lack of a regional settlement could fuel Lebanon’s political vacuum and transform it into what he described as a “failed state.”
In addition to the caretaker Cabinet, Lebanon’s Parliament unilaterally extended its mandate in May. The outcome of presidential elections next year is uncertain. “Not electing a president will be a devastating step,” Salamey said. “We’re back to 1975, pretty much.”
But he said a regional understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia would be a prerequisite for a resolution in Lebanon.
“The regional and domestic are very interlocked,” he said. “You cannot analyze Lebanese politics on a domestic level only. It is always linked to regional developments.”
Salamey said the recent postponement of President Michel Sleiman’s visit to Saudi Arabia might be linked to talks of a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but the purpose of the visit was probably first to secure Saudi assistance for the Syrian refugees.
But Khashan said it was too early to draw conclusions that reconciliation is at hand between Iran and the U.S. He said the purpose of the engagement had little to do with the situation in Lebanon or Syria, but was confined to Iran’s nuclear program.
He downplayed the importance of a reported visit by Rouhani to Saudi Arabia during the annual pilgrimage to Mecca when he is expected to meet the Saudi king, saying there were still fundamental differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which he said wants to alter the fundamental balance of power in the region.
Arash Karami, a writer for Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse, a website that closely analyzes Iranian politics, said it was clear Rouhani had been authorized to resolve the nuclear file, but said it was unlikely such negotiations could act as a stepping stone to a regional settlement.
“The issues between Saudi Arabia and Iran are much deeper,” he said. “ Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting over the Middle East religiously, culturally and militarily.”
Syria, Karami said, would continue to be a powerful obstacle to a regional settlement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. “For Iran, besides the question of Hezbollah, particularly for the Revolutionary Guard, Syria is an existential fight,” he said, pointing out that Syria was the only Arab country to support Iran in its war in the 1980s with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
“The Revolutionary Guard soldiers that fought in that war are the commanders of today and so the memory of the war is fresh in their mind,” he said.
In addition, Karami said, Saudi Arabia is likely to continue attempting to isolate Iran and diminish its influence in Syria by arming the rebels there.
Such plans could be at risk if a deal is reached between the U.S. and Iran.
Part of a U.S.- Iran deal will be the “transformation of Iran into a bona fide regional power and it will come at the expense of Saudi Arabia,” Khashan said.
“Actually, the Saudis are frightened by the prospect of a rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran,” he said.
Khashan said that Lebanon’s stability is likely not an important factor in the negotiations, but argued that a deal would lead to a resolution of Lebanon’s intractable politics.
“ Lebanon is not an important country and is not important to decision makers in the West,” he said.
“The situation in Lebanon will drag until outstanding regional issues are resolved,” he said.
Khashan said such a deal would also diminish the usefulness of Hezbollah’s military component, which was useful for Iranian power projection.
“For Iran, Hezbollah is useful to the extent it enables it to achieve its objectives,” he said, envisioning that the party’s military apparatus could eventually merge with, and dominate, the Lebanese Army.
Karami said that while Iran’s support for Hezbollah will likely continue, the party’s role may change.
He pointed out that former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, an influential member of Iran’s ruling elite, was attacked in hard-line media outlets in Tehran for suggesting that it would be possible to negotiate with the U.S. if Hezbollah would stop its adventurism.
He said that Rouhani shared Rafsanjani’s pragmatist outlook, but that there was no appetite yet for scaling back Hezbollah’s role, especially with the ongoing fighting in Syria.