Political turmoil in Lebanon, Iraq signals failure of Iran’s proxy model

“The protests in both Iraq and Lebanon are primarily about local politics and a corrupt political class that has failed to deliver,” says Ayham Kamel, MENA practice head at Eurasia Group.
Sunday 03/11/2019
A Lebanese flag hangs on a barbed wire near the government palace in Beirut, November 2. (Reuters)
A Lebanese flag hangs on a barbed wire near the government palace in Beirut, November 2. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, which came in defiance of the powerful, Iran-backed Hezbollah, was described as a blow to the Shia group and parties of the ruling class blamed for corruption and mismanagement that pushed the country to the brink of economic collapse.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah had voiced opposition to a government change, warning against a political vacuum while suggesting that some protesters were financed by the group’s foreign adversaries and implementing their agendas. However, that did not stop Hariri from resigning after he said his efforts to defuse the crisis sweeping Lebanon since October 17 had hit a dead end.

Hariri’s exit was largely regarded as a setback to Hezbollah, the only armed faction in Lebanon, but it also placed the other political groups in his coalition government in the same uncomfortable situation, be they Hezbollah’s allies or rivals, said political analyst Amine Kammourieh.

“Definitely, Hezbollah is in an awkward position as well as all the other political forces. It is embarrassed with the people from its own (Shia) community who have voiced grievances and demands for reforms,” Kammourieh said.

“Hezbollah is also annoyed to see ‘an essential partner’ like Saad Hariri, whom it considered a link with the West, walk out. If you look around, you can see that they are all shaken. The toppling of the government is a blow to all the ruling class.”

Kammourieh argued that it was too early to assess the damage that each group had sustained. “The regime is feeling awkward. Hariri is not to be envied because he was a party in the arrangement under which the outgoing government was formed and Hezbollah is perturbed, which means Iran is perturbed, too,” he said.

Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs, said: “The resignation is a blow to the whole political system and Hezbollah might be the most affected because it is the strongest entity in that system that serves its interests.”

However, he said, that doesn’t mean Hezbollah is “weakened” because it is “still the dominant power and holds many cards” it could use.

The protests in Lebanon, similar to those in Iraq, were fuelled by local grievances and mainly directed at political elites but they also posed a challenge to Iran, which closely backs both governments as well as powerful armed groups in each country.

A surprise visit to Baghdad by Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the elite al-Quds Force and architect of Iran’s regional security apparatus, signalled Tehran’s concern over the protests.

“The protests in both Iraq and Lebanon are primarily about local politics and a corrupt political class that has failed to deliver,” Ayham Kamel, MENA practice head at Eurasia Group, told the Associated Press.

The protests “showcase the failure of the proxy model [in which] Iran is able to expand influence but its allies are unable to effectively govern,” Kamel said.

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