Commentary

Iran's new policy put to the test in Lebanon and Iraq

Hezbollah supporters wave Iranian and Hezbollah flags, during a protest in solidarity with Palestinians amid an escalating Israeli military campaign in Gaza in Kafr Kila, May 14, 2021. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

The way Iran will approach the results of the upcoming Iraqi and Lebanese parliamentary elections through their allies will signal whether Tehran will pursue a more assertive foreign policy or a reconciliatory one with Arab and Western capitals.

For years, Iran watchers tried to read between the lines in order to understand the real policies of the spiritual guide, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who holds absolute power, and conflicting statements by the official policy of the Islamic Republic articulated by the elected president and his foreign minister. The election of President Ebrahim Raisi, who is close to the spiritual guide and known to be a hard-liner domestically and internationally, will make this distinction between the spiritual guide and the president almost non-existing. So for the first time the game played by Iran to determine who is a moderate and who is a hawk is no longer viable.

This harmony between the presidency and the spiritual guide will shift to the rivalry between the IRCG and the Iranian Intelligence Ministry, Itilaat. Lebanon is known to fall under the direct influence of IRCG's Quds Brigade, while in Iraq Itilaat is more active especially after the assassination of the iconic Quds Brigade leader Gen. Qasem Soleimani in an American raid. Hence, the conflicting signals coming from Tehran to their various proxies and allies in Iraq.

Lebanon is less complicated. Tehran has one trusted ally that complies with the overall Iranian agenda and provides it with a domestic Lebanese external shell that would make Hezbollah appear as a local player defending Lebanese interests. It is obvious that the new Raisi administration wants to consolidate Iranian gains in the region while it is negotiating with Western powers and trying to mend relations with Arab Gulf countries, which are constantly worried by Iranians subversion activities.

In Iraq, Tehran may wish to see a change in the premiership following the parliamentary election this month. Reports coming from Baghdad reveal that Tehran prefers to see a new prime minister closer to its evolving agenda and has already conveyed this message to its close allies. Following the assassination of Soleimani, Itilaat gained more leverage in Baghdad, but with Raisi now on top of the Iranian government, Tehran wants to see a change. Iraqis who maintain good relations with Iran are feeling that the IRCG is reclaiming its influence in Tehran.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah appears to be more public and open about its intentions and pursuing a no-glove attitude. For years, Hezbollah tried to maintain a political posture as a protector and preserving the resistance against Israel. Recently, Hezbollah is meddling in an open manner with domestic politics. The recent expression of dissatisfaction of Judge Tarek Bitar, investigating the Beirut Port explosion, and the import of Iranian fuel into Lebanon are clear signals that Hezbollah is shifting from being influential behind the scenes into telling the world who is calling the shots in Beirut.

Lebanon, who is facing a severe economic crisis, is expected to hold parliamentary elections and embark on tough negotiations with the World Bank and IMF to secure needed loans. In both events Hezbollah has its own views and wants to make sure that the outcome of both processes would not jeopardize its influence in Lebanon. With Washington and NATO out of Afghanistan and the US reducing its military presence in Iraq and the Gulf region, Iran may feel it can negotiate with less pressure from the days when the US military was at its borders.

The looming threat is what Israel sees as an acceptable level of uranium enrichment by Iran. To what extent would Israel be willing to tolerate Iran's nuclear moves before carrying its bombing threat?

The next few months are going to be key in the negotiations between Iran and the Western powers with each side holding tight to its demands and negotiating cards.

Mouafac Harb is a veteran American-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. He contributes a weekly column in The Daily Star.

 

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