Lebanon dialogue, a conduit for Iran, Saudi Arabia
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.