Lebanon dialogue, a conduit for Iran, Saudi Arabia

Sunday 09/10/2016
Saudi Ambassador to Lebanon Ali Awad Assiri (C) receiving Sunni clerics

BEIRUT - For almost two years, Leba­non’s principal rivals — Iran-backed Shia Hezbol­lah and the mainly Sunni Future Movement — have been engaged in a regular, quiet and low-profile dialogue to de­fuse sectarian tensions that have reached alarming levels in the small multi-confessional country.

Despite deep differences and the inability to reach agreement on is­sues such as Hezbollah’s arsenal and its participation in the fighting in Syria alongside President Bashar Assad’s regime, the two parties opt­ed for keeping the contacts — mak­ing their dialogue the only open channel between Sunnis and Shias in the region and thus indirectly between their rival sponsors: Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Tensions between Hezbollah, led by Hassan Nasrallah, and the Future Movement, headed by for­mer prime minister Saad Hariri, grew following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Saad Hariri’s father and long-time prime minister, who was killed in a huge truck-bombing in Beirut on February 14th, 2005.

The subsequent withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, the es­tablishment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon that accused Hezbol­lah members of being behind Hari­ri’s assassination, and Hezbollah’s show of force by sending its fight­ers to take control of Beirut in 2008, were the first signs of a Sunni-Shia conflict that has been exacerbated by the war in Syria and Iran’s upper hand in Iraq.

“We couldn’t leave things go out of hand in an already inflamed re­gion… and reach the point where the situation could explode within seconds,” said Samir Jisr, a parlia­mentarian and one of three mem­bers representing the Future Move­ment at the dialogue sessions with Hezbollah.

The dialogue, which started in December 2014, was limited to the two sides discussing the election of a new head of state after president Michel Suleiman completed his term in May of the same year and to defuse sectarian tension.

While they have failed to pave the way for electing a new presi­dent, the Hezbollah-Future Move­ment meetings helped maintain an acceptable level of stability in the country, which found itself deluged by more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Most important, they eased Lebanese fears of likely Sunni-Shia violence on their own territories.

“The dialogue achieved very lit­tle and less than what we aspire for,” Jisr said, adding on a realistic note that the relative stability Leb­anon is enjoying was due to the fact that “the big powers don’t want to move the war to Lebanon but if they decide otherwise, it will take less than 24 hours for the whole country to plunge into violence: Tension, fears and weapons are all there”.

However, Jisr appeared confi­dent that, sooner or later, the pre­sent dialogue will turn into “a more serious, in-depth one”.

“This is a preliminary phase… waiting for changes in the region,” he said.

No doubt, the conflict in Leba­non has many internal roots but it is also affected by the Saudi-Irani­an dispute and the political strug­gle over influence in the region.

In that context, maintaining the dialogue between Hezbollah and the Future Movement, clearly with the consent of their respective pa­trons, represents an open chan­nel that could open the way for a much-needed regional dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“That means that this cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is destructive to both and to the region, could be contained and stopped by regulating their disputes,” said Michel Nawfal, a political analyst and expert in Ira­nian and Turkish affairs. “At the end, there is no escape but to have a dialogue.”

Nawfal suggested a mechanism similar to the 1975 Helsinki ac­cords, which were meant to reduce tension between the Soviet and Western blocs by securing their common acceptance of the post-second world war status quo in Eu­rope.

The region may not be yet ready for such a deal as “the world is changing and the features of this new world are not clear”, he said. “But to lessen the losses, we should by all means create a mechanism to contain the disputes.”

Turkey, according to Nawfal, is “eligible and prepared to be the mediator” between Saudi Arabia and Iran, taking into consideration the good relations Ankara enjoys with both as well as its strategic po­sitioning in the Islamic world and internationally.

He said that the diminishing role of the Western world is allowing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Er­dogan to have “a big margin of ma­noeuvre”, emphasising that when­ever a mechanism for initiating a rapprochement between the two sides is in place, it would be then possible to define the issues of the conflict.

“This is the only way to tell the Iranians that there are limits for their presence in the region, that they are adopting an unbalanced strategy which could benefit them now but not in the future for the simple reasons there are other big blocs: Saudi Arabia and Egypt — so not to say the Sunni bloc,” Nawfal noted.

Consequently, the leaders in Iran and Saudi Arabia should be convinced that “no one can beat or break the other” and that they should seize the opportunity to get together while the big powers are almost inactive in the region.

Turkey would then be filling a gap largely left by an ailing Egypt, which should have been the one mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Nawfal concluded.