Both Lebanon and Iraq have caught, beyond the usual routine of Middle East turmoil, the attention of the West in recent months. Lebanon, beset by Great Depression-level economic collapse, suffered the still-not-fully-explained Beirut Port explosion on August 4 that killed several hundred, injured 6,000, and destroyed part of the country's capital city and principal port. As a result of the crisis, Lebanon's government formally resigned and is in caretaker mode, awaiting the outcome of jockeying for ministerial seats by different factions. In Iraq, the year opened with the liquidation of Iranian terror master Qassim Soleimani in Baghdad, and in May 2020 the caretaker government of Adel Abdel Mahdi was finally replaced by a new government headed by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, who visited Washington in August 2020 (his first foreign visit was to Iran in July).
Despite the reality that the governments of both countries are heavily influenced by Iran and its local proxies, the West has engaged. French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut in the immediate aftermath of the port explosion and has promised enhanced French engagement. Al-Kadhmi was warmly received in Washington, and his government signed agreements worth billions of dollars with American companies in the fields of oil, gas, and electricity.
The subtext in both situations – in two very different Middle East countries facing some superficially common issues – is of Western governments making good faith efforts to engage with counterparts. While Washington is more upbeat about the new Iraqi prime minister than about a new Lebanese government, in both cases the hope is that engagement and encouragement by the West can produce better results, for the local people and for Western interests, than past governments in Beirut and Baghdad have been able to deliver. But how realistic are these hopes for reform, and what are the immediate challenges to change?
On the surface, prospects seem better in Iraq. The economic situation is terrible, but nowhere near as catastrophic as Lebanon's. Iraq has some money, while Lebanon has none. Al-Kadhimi is at least a fresh face on the scene, and has said some very good things about bringing perpetrators in the killing of activists to justice. Whether or not he can deliver is another question.
For Lebanon, sadly, the way forward seems to consist of forging a "national unity government" completely beholden to Hizbullah, or a more narrowly based "technocratic" government also beholden to Hizbullah. The Lebanese political cartel on which Hizbullah relies to implement its will seems confident that it can weather the disastrous social, economic, environmental, and political situation that it has engendered.
One similarity between the two countries is that despite the continued hegemony of Iran and its local minions, the disgust that led to constant demonstrations in both, from October 2019 and into 2020, by tens of thousands of people, especially young people, has not dissipated. These rallies were enduring enough to bring about the fall of the puppet government of the day, but not strong enough to bring about real change. As weak as the eventual result was, the demonstrations did represent an inchoate challenge to the Iran-controlled political order.
The Iran-led response to even weak challenges has come and will continued to manifest itself in three ways: through violence, through political penetration, and through economic manipulation.
As Iraq's new prime minister at least tries to make public efforts towards reform, Iran's many proxies inside Iraq have escalated their activity, with targeted killings of activists, opinion makers, and journalists. The July 7 assassination of Hisham Al-Hashemi, who advised the government on terrorism, including on Iran-controlled death squads, was a direct message to Al-Kadhimi. Assassinations have continued into August 2020, aided and abetted by a massive pro-Iran militia/political party media apparatus inside Iraq built up over the past decade. Al-Kadhimi will be forced to either accommodate the death squads or confront them. There is a real public appetite in Iraq for a political leader that puts Iraq's interests and sovereignty first, but it is still unclear if Al-Kadhimi can be that man, and, if he actually tries to do so, whether he will survive.
In Lebanon, the trend towards violence and coercion is headed in a similar direction. There has been an increase in heavy-handed repression, assaults on journalists and demonstrators, and efforts to silence critical media voices such as Beirut's MTV (Murr Television). The repression reached a new level of malevolent ridiculousness when Lebanese security forces hunted down, blindfolded, and extracted a confession and apology from one demonstrator, ironically a Lebanese Christian, who had disrespected a framed photo of Lebanon's Christian President Michel Aoun during demonstrations. Some Lebanese fear that as Hizbullah becomes concerned that the people are losing their fear, another wave of assassinations of Hizbullah critics may come, as happened from 2004 to 2013 when prominent politicians, journalists, and security officials were targeted.
The threat of violence is always implicit. But Iran and its proxies rule in Lebanon and Iraq through their manipulation of politics and the electoral process. Particularly useful, especially in Lebanon, are non-Shia politicians who serve the interests of Iran. These Christian and Sunni enablers extend and disguise Iran's reach into the political process. Any early elections that happen in either country – a demand by many earnest reformers – will be susceptible to manipulation by these corrupt political cartels in sync with Iran, to game an already skewed system in their favor.
As for economic manipulation, both Lebanon and Iraq are places where Iran and Hizbullah launder their money and also use ill-gotten gains and local government corruption to maintain their hegemony. What better way to care for an Iranian mole than to have him on the payroll of the state he is sent to infiltrate? The avarice of local elites works hand in glove to enrich themselves in the service of Iran's larger objectives.
In the face of this Iranian straitjacket, what is the West to do? Is it better to walk away and cut our losses? Should the West, in this case France and the U.S., aggressively work towards reform? Are newer figures like Al-Kadhimi or wasted ones like Lebanon's Saad Al-Hariri able to deliver anything of real value? Some voices in these countries criticize outsiders who call for an impossibly tough hardline in Lebanon and Iraq from far away, even though these same voices don't seem to look askance at Western funding as long as there are few strings attached.
In my view, the West can and must engage, but needs to be much more cynical and transactional in its objectives. Too much "institution building," "economic development," and "process for the sake of process" can easily becloud our perspectives. Our main goal should be to deny Iran and its proxies the resources they need to rule, to raise the price of their hegemony. This could mean propping up elements of local society – independent media is one obvious sector – that can make useful contributions to making the price of hegemony higher. Putting pressure on enablers, those who provide convenient fig leaves for Iranian proxy rule, is another obvious gambit.
Absent a successful popular and violent uprising in Lebanon or Iraq against the Iranian satrapy – an outcome that seems very unlikely – the key to ending Iranian control of those states lies inside Iran itself, with the fall of that regime. In the meantime, keeping our objectives as hardnosed and tangible as possible seems the best choice.
*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.