Lebanon goes to the polls on May 6. Nine long years have passed since the last parliamentary elections which, according to the constitution, are supposed to be held every four years. Ever since 2014 ministers and politicians have voted again and again to postpone elections and extend the current parliament, citing security concerns, political crisis and a dispute over the election law.
When the new poll is held, the political landscape within Lebanon and in the region will have changed dramatically. The intervening period has seen both the rise and the battlefield defeat of Islamic State in neighboring Iraq and Syria, a dramatic extension of Iranian power in both countries, the direct involvement of Hezbollah military forces – composed, be it remembered, of young Lebanese fighters – in the civil conflict in Syria, acting under direct Iranian command, and a huge build-up of sophisticated Iranian weaponry in Lebanon itself together with the development of arms manufacturing facilities on a massive scale.
Moreover, the previous pro-Western, Saudi-backed political alliance led by prime minister Saad Hariri, has disintegrated. Over the nine years from 2009 Hariri’s government has included members of the increasingly confident, Iran-backed Shi’ite movement Hezbollah – one obvious sign of Iran extending its power base into Lebanon by way of its subsidiary. This was a dangerous development that Saudi Arabia, leader of the Sunni world, was determined to nip in the bud.
In November 2017, urged on − it is surmised − by the charismatic Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, Hariri travelled to Riyadh, and from the Saudi capital he resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister, incorporating a resounding denunciation of Hezbollah and Iran in his announcement.
The resultant political storm could not be contained. He stayed abroad for two weeks, then travelled back to Lebanon where he withdrew his resignation, and resumed his office. But all was far from well. Hariri could never be reconciled to the increasingly dominant position that Hezbollah was assuming within the Lebanese body politic. Regardless of his political objections, his personal reasons are overwhelming.
On February 14, 2005, his father, Rafik Hariri, one-time prime minister and a powerful opponent of Syrian and Hezbollah dominance in Lebanon, was assassinated. The subsequent judicial proceedings, which are still ongoing after 12 years, have pretty well established that the murder was ordered by Bashar al Assad, Syria’s president, and carried out by Hezbollah operatives. So Saad Hariri has business left unfinished by his father to complete. There is no doubt that Rafik would have been appalled by the extent to which Iran has gained control over Lebanon’s military power, and is using the country as a manufacturing base from which to arm the Shi’ite crescent that it is consolidating. For Iran is building and equipping a Shi’ite empire extending from Yemen, through Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Syria and through to Lebanon.
Back on March 11, 2017, the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida reported that an aide to Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, had informed it that Iran had established facilities for manufacturing missiles and other weapons in Lebanon, and had recently handed them over to the management and oversight of Hezbollah. The newspaper reported that the facilities were more than 50 meters underground and heavily shielded against aerial attacks.
“Moreover,” ran the Al-Jarida report, “manufacture of the missiles does not take place in one factory; different parts are built in different factories and then assembled.” The weaponry included surface-to-surface and surface-to-sea missiles, torpedoes, spy drones, anti-tank missiles, and fast armored boats.
This report was confirmed in some detail in July 2017 by France’s Intelligence Online. It referred to at least two underground facilities being constructed in Lebanon for manufacturing missiles and other weaponry, providing details of the weaponry produced and the approximate locations of the plants. One of the factories, being built near the town of Hermel in the eastern Bekaa Valley, will produce the Fateh 110, a medium-range missile. The second, between the towns of Sidon and Tyre, will manufacture smaller munitions.
The Fateh 110 has a range of approximately 300 kilometers − enough to cover most of Israel − and can carry a half-ton warhead. Israel’s David’s Sling missile defense battery, which went operational in April 2017, is specifically designed to combat medium-range rockets like the Fateh 110.
These developments highlight the depth of Iran’s involvement in Syria and Lebanon, something that both Israel and some Arab states including Saudi Arabia have been warning against recently. In particular was the article published on January 28, 2018 by Israel Defense Forces spokesman, Ronen Manelis – an article reproduced on several Lebanese websites, including Ahewar, in other Arabic publications and on media outlets including the Voice of Beirut, the Moscow-based Sputnik media group, and Israeli radio’s Arabic station.
“Through the actions and inaction of the Lebanese authorities,” wrote Manelis, “Lebanon is turning into one big missile factory while much of the international community looks the other way. It’s no longer about transfers of arms, money or advice. De facto, Iran has opened a new branch, the Lebanon branch.” With Iran’s support, Hezbollah is building “terrorist infrastructure and plants to make arms under the nose of the Lebanese government.”
Hezbollah’s actions are turning Lebanon into a “powder keg” that its people are living around, Manelis warned, and Iran “is playing with their safety and future”. 2018, he said, will determine Lebanon’s future — a stable and economically prosperous country, or an arm of Iran and Hezbollah.
Then Manelis turned to the forthcoming elections. Will Hezbollah, he wondered, manage to elbow out the Sunni camp and officially turn the country into an Iranian client state?
Responsible opinion would deplore such an outcome. Possible counter-measures range from military action by one or other outside agency in Lebanon or in Iran to prevent any such outcome, diplomatic pressure on the Lebanese government to exert effective control over the overweening power of Hezbollah, or a major internal political effort by Hariri and his allies in the new election campaign aimed at wresting power back into responsible hands.