Virtual victory lap by Tehran in Lebanon

A photo taken on January 5, 2021 shows a closeup of the newly unveiled statue of Iran's most revered military commander, Qassem Soleimani, next to a Lebanese flag in the Beirut southern suburb of Ghobeiry. / AFP / JOSEPH EID

President Joseph Biden was quicker than former President Donald Trump in delivering on his campaign pledge in launching the process to rejoin the JCPOA before he completed his first 100 days in office.

On Feb. 18 the Biden administration rescinded Trump’s restoration of UN sanctions on Iran and agreed to join its European partners in direct discussions with Tehran.

This must have been the quickest policy review in recent history by a new administration concerning a complicated issue, which indicates that the new administration had already made up its mind, and all it has to do now is to decide on an action plan that would bring back the US into the Iran deal and the Iranian nuclear program into a “box.”

No doubt that under Trump Iran was placed on the defensive. The crippling sanctions against Tehran brought the country's economy to the verge of collapse, but although Iran in the last four years suffered several setbacks, it didn’t concede on any regional achievement it had scored since the signing of the JCPOA.

It is difficult to assess the viability of the previous administration’s policy vis a vis Tehran given the change in the White House, and as a result the tough policy against Iran didn’t have the chance to reach a conclusion or even be declared a failure. Proponents of the hard-line policy argue that it was halted before bearing fruit.

It is not clear whether snubbing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who did not receive a call from Biden early on, and suspending arms sales and making veiled criticism toward the UAE and Saudi Arabia were intended to mute any anticipated public opposition to the administration’s intention to rejoin the Iran deal. Whether intentional or not, it did work. Compared to the fierce opposition by Israel and Saudi Arabia in 2015, this time the reaction to join open discussions with Iran were subdued. Even the US Congress, mainly the evenly split Senate, still reeling from the Trump impeachment trial, did not move against the administration’s intentions.

In 1990 Lebanon paid the price of appeasing Syria’s Hafez Assad following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the launching of the Arab Israeli peace process. Outsourcing Lebanon to Assad was justified at the time as a need to end the Civil War and bring stability to lebanon. By trading stability for sovereignty, Lebanon ended up without either.

Today, fears that Lebanon’s political independence will be compromised to appease Iran are justified.

Despite the tough sanctions and the targeted assassinations of its top nuclear scientists and military commanders, the regime in Iran refused to yield any gains it made following the Iran nuclear deal. However, its influence in Yemen is considered by many in the West as exaggerated and will not last in peace time. In Iraq, Iran’s influence is being increasingly challenged by Iraqis, but it maintains enough sway to disrupt any future anti-Iran government. In Syria, Iran's influence is counterbalanced by Russia's military presence and Tehran has to find a common ground with Moscow’s interests. The only place where Iran feels condident about its clout is in Lebanon because of Hezbollah, which has proven to be loyal to Iran and provided Tehran with an advance base on the Mediterranean and an effective presence at the border with Israel. Hezbollah has become to Iran what Cuban advisers were to Moscow under communist rule.

Now with both camps expressing willingness to return to nuclear talks, the daunting negotiations are expected to begin very soon, with all parties placing their negotiating cards on the table. Tehran is celebrating having withstood the tough economic sanctions and is in desperate need to claim victory and restore public morale, months before its presidential election is due. Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria would be places where Iran wants to flex its muscles, but without antagonizing the Biden White House. A virtual victory lap may suffice to restore Iran’s morale, and this is exactly what Tehran is doing.

However, Lebanon has a different place in the Iranian strategy. Leveraging Iran in Lebanon may hurt stability in an already fragile country, but conceding Lebanon to Iran may have serious consequences. Lebanon is a place where Iran has invested billions of dollars and Tehran is not willing to compromise there. This is certainly going to reflect on the political stability of the country that is still struggling to form a new Cabinet and start tackling its economic crisis.

Washington and its European allies have to decide the strategic value of Lebanon while they are reviewing their strategy on how to counter competitive China and increasingly aggressive Russia. Iran had proven over the years its ability to disrupt and and withstand sanctions, but it has miserably failed to offer a viable model of prosperity and statehood in the region.

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





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