Hezbollah gains from Vienna but hard choices ahead

Friday 14/08/2015
Power balance. Lebanon’s Hezbollah members attend the funeral of a fellow fighter killed in the Qalamoun region, on May 26, 2015.

Beirut - Hezbollah believes that the recent nu­clear deal with Iran will bring it political dividends in Leba­non, Syria and elsewhere in the region. While that could be true, the party faces a number of serious challenges in the months and years ahead.
For Hezbollah, the reintegration of Iran into the regional and global order means a wider margin of ma­noeuvre for the Islamic Republic to support its allies in the Middle East. The lifting of sanctions on Iran will free up funds to assist Hezbollah and the Syrian regime and if Iran is perceived as a legitimate regional actor whose interests must be tak­en into consideration, Hezbollah will expect the same.
The Obama administration has made it clear that Iran is a stake­holder in Syria with a place at the negotiating table. Though it has ac­celerated Syria’s dismemberment, because it has sway over Bashar Assad’s regime Iran can shape the aftermath in Syria to its advantage.
Yet the Iranians have engaged in unspeakable crimes in Syria. They and their allies have participated in the sectarian cleansing of millions of Syrian Sunnis and have facili­tated or committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. This has been ignored by an international community eager to start afresh with Iran.
For Hezbollah this is good news. Already the party is pursuing its of­fensive against the strategic city of Zabadani amid international in­difference. With reports that ISIS is moving westward towards the Qalamoun district along the Leba­nese border, Hezbollah will be in­creasingly viewed as a bulwark against extremism.
The same has occurred in Iraq. While the Obama administration denounced the behaviour of Shia militias there, today it considers them the only effective military force against ISIS. After having said that it would support an inclusive Iraqi government and work to en­hance Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi’s authority, the United States has recognised the ineffectiveness of his army and continues to sup­port, albeit reluctantly, pro-Iranian Shia militias challenging this au­thority.
Hezbollah knows that US Presi­dent Barack Obama wants to ensure that the nuclear deal with Iran is ex­panded to include a dialogue over regional affairs. This has not reas­sured the Arabs. Nor can it reassure the Lebanese, who may soon have to prepare for a sustained Hezbol­lah effort to alter the country’s po­litical system to better reflect Shia demographics.
However, changing the Lebanese sectarian system is no walk in the park. Hezbollah will not only have to manage the anger of Christians, who would lose representation, it would also have to address a hostile Sunni community. Sunnis today feel empowered by the difficulties Hezbollah is facing in Syria and the presence in Lebanon of 1.2 million, mostly Sunni, refugees.
How Hezbollah expects to pro­ceed is unclear but its most potent weapon is to play on the Christians’ fears of Sunni extremism by point­ing out that a political system that maintains a permanent non-Sunni majority in Lebanon would best protect minorities.
That would mean rewriting the constitution that emerged from the 1989 Taif accord that ended the 1975-90 civil war and allocated one-third of parliamentary seats to Christians, a third to the Shia, and a third to the Sunnis, instead of a 50-50 Christian-Muslim split. That would ensure that Shia and Chris­tians together retain a two-thirds majority.
Whether this is possible is not known. Hezbollah’s intentions raise suspicion among many Lebanese, and there are those who see the 15-month-old presidential vacuum, which Hezbollah has helped per­petuate, as a step towards amend­ing the constitution. Wherever the party feels it can gain from the nuclear deal with Iran, it will face blowback making its ambitions all the more difficult to realise.
Lebanon is not the only place where this will happen. Even if the nuclear deal allows the As­sad regime and Iran to buy time in Syria, it is unlikely to shift the momentum of the war there. As­sad’s enemies can still significantly outspend Iran, and Iran’s strategy of breaking Syria up into sectarian entities will only put more pressure on a rump Alawite-dominated state with no economic prospects, facing a mobilised Sunni majority.
Nor can Hezbollah ignore anoth­er serious potential threat. Israel is hostile to the nuclear agreement, and assuming the agreement is passed by the US Congress, the Is­raeli willingness to challenge Iran regionally will rise. That means Israel may see deleted advantages in launching a devastating attack against the party in Lebanon, both to weaken Hezbollah and impose a new deterrence equation on the border.
Hezbollah should avoid hubris. The nuclear deal will help but if the party overplays its hand it could lose everything. Lebanon’s power-sharing system has to be respected and Syria has already proven to be a nightmare. An accord with Iran will change neither.