The summit Iran did not want

When Iran boasts that it controls four Arab capitals, the first of these capitals that comes to mind is Beirut.
Saturday 26/01/2019
Bent out of shape. Lebanese President Michel Aoun attends the opening session of the Arab Economic and Social Development summit in Beirut, January 20. (DPA) 
Bent out of shape. Lebanese President Michel Aoun attends the opening session of the Arab Economic and Social Development summit in Beirut, January 20. (DPA) 

The Arab Economic Summit concluded January 20 in Beirut. Nineteen heads of state were absent and only two attended. The emir of Qatar was at the opening session but quickly left. The other head of state was Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who stayed for the whole meeting because his country will be hosting the next summit.

The situation in the Arab world is not good and there is nothing in the history of the Arab summits to appease the anxieties of citizens. The Beirut summit, however, hit a record low in attendance by heads of state.

Of course, all countries invited did send delegations to the summit but the level of representation remained below the top echelons of authority. So naturally, the summit outcomes were rather insipid. It was as if the whole point of attending was just to figure on the list so the summit could be archived properly by the Arab League.

And yet, the Beirut summit caused a stir inside Lebanon. Lebanese President Michel Aoun tried to save the summit in the context of an internal Lebanese confrontation.

There were vigorous attempts by Lebanese forces, led by Lebanese parliament Speaker and head of Amal Movement Nabih Berri, to have the summit postponed. A crisis was fabricated in which Berri opposed the participation in the summit of the Libyan delegation.

It escalated to the point of having members of Amal militia breach the security perimeter around the summit venue and replace the Libyan flag with Amal’s flag. The “flag incident” was a serious security breach considering the tight security measures taken by the Lebanese Army. No wonder that many heads of state declined to attend the summit.

Aoun was keen on securing the success of the summit. After all, he was going to head his first Arab summit and perhaps his last. He wanted to inject a bit of brightness to the otherwise dark era of his presidency.

For eight months, Lebanon has been surviving without a formal government. Aoun undoubtedly wanted the Beirut summit and its eventual success to constitute a boost for Lebanon and his presidency. He had hoped that the country would initiate a new phase free of political hurdles.

Apparently, Berri was unhappy about not inviting Syria to the summit and he was opposed to the participation of Libya. However, let’s not forget that Berri is one of Aoun’s staunchest opponents. This is why observers considered Berri’s attempts to disturb the summit process as motivated by political differences between him and Aoun and their mutual dislike of each other.

This interpretation does not necessarily eliminate the possibility that Berri’s inappropriate and even illegal actions were dictated by loyalty considerations to, if not direct instructions from, Berri’s Big Brother, Hezbollah.

The logic is simple: A successful Arab summit in Lebanon, even just at the level of representation, is something that Tehran would want to prevent. Obviously, Iran was not going to stand by and watch Lebanon and its capital, Beirut, be yanked away from its grip by any Arab initiative.

When Iran boasts that it controls four Arab capitals, the first of these capitals that comes to mind is Beirut, where Tehran’s political influence is much more visible than in Damascus, Baghdad or Sana'a. So, considering Arab resistance to Iranian influence in the region, we are bound to see Iranian attempts to disrupt the Arab summit in Beirut. Berri might have been the public tool for this disruption but the decision must have come from Tehran.

It was still possible to salvage the Arab Economic Summit in Beirut but the Iranian message was successfully delivered as well. There is an unprecedented and intense displeasure in the Lebanese presidential camp as well as in the Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement regarding Hezbollah’s behaviour and its policy towards the president.

The Arab Economic Summit in Beirut revealed how Aoun could be easily targeted by those who call themselves his strategic allies, while his traditional adversaries were the ones who stood by him in his efforts to preserve a minimum level in Lebanon’s relationship with its Arab environment. Obviously, Hezbollah was not willing to allow even this minimal level.