The Matter Of Iran

Spirited electoral performance by its allies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq has further strengthened the muscular foreign policy of Tehran, as Saudi-US-Israeli axis finds itself in disarray at least for the time being, says Saurabh Kumar Shahi

Just a few months ago, it looked all rosy for the Saudi-Zionist-American alliance in the Middle East. They believed they had it all bagged in. Late one evening, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was asked by the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, to immediately report to Riyadh. Hariri, whose real-estate empire depends on Saudi doles and contracts, was in no position to argue. Also, it was not for the first time that Saudis were calling their man in Beirut for consultations. There was no inkling of anything untowardly happening. Yet, it happened.
As soon as Hariri landed in Riyadh, he was sort of abducted—and according to well-placed sources manhandled—and was asked to read his own resignation on the national tv, accusing Hezbollah and Iran in the process. Bin Salman thought that he had pulled a coup or something. Hariri—in spite of all his shortcomings—is a practical man. Just days ago he had had a long meeting with ace Iranian diplomat Ali Akbar Vilayeti, who is a representative of Ayatollah Khamenei. Clearly, Bin Salman had panicked. By forcing Hariri to resign on national tv, and accusing Hezbollah and Iran for the same was his idea of turning the tide inside ever-divided Lebanon. The tide did turn, but in the other direction.
Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah not only dodged the trap that was laid for him, he did so with style and aplomb. He refused to react to Hariri’s allegations that were made on tv—including that he feared for his life from Hezbollah— and maintained publicly that Hariri has been kidnapped and that his resignation in the capital city of a foreign nation was not to be taken seriously. He appealed to the Sunnis in particular and the Lebanese in general to ask Saudis to return their Prime Minister to them. He made the issue a matter of pride and dignity for all Lebanese by deciding not to play ball to the sectarian trap that was laid.
“The resignation from abroad while in captivity was not accepted back in Beirut, and France’s Emmanuel Macron intervened to broker Hariri’s release. Although Hariri got a big bump in the polls temporarily, the episode seems to have hurt him badly with his own Sunni constituency,” says Juan Cole, noted Middle East expert.
Lebanese Christian President, a Hezbollah ally, refused to accept the resignation and joined voices with Nasrallah. The Lebanese got the cue. AntiSaudi feeling spiked. At the height of the crisis, a contact of mine, a Lebanese Sunni, sent me a video clip of a scene inside a discotheque in a predominantly Sunni neighbourhood of Beirut. In the clip, the DJ was seen rapping a line to the effect of, “O Saudis! Send our Hariri back, or we will ask the Sheikh (Nasrallah) to snatch him back from you.” This was unprecedented. Even at the height of sectarian sentiments, there were Sunni youths looking up to Nasrallah for the well-being of their PM. Saudis lost the next elections in Lebanon then and there. What followed months later was merely a formality.
As the results poured in following the largely peaceful polls, Hezbollah and its allies, including Amal Movement and SSNP, improved their tally dramatically and won almost one third of the total available seats. Its other ally, Free Patriotic Movement led by President’s son-in-law Gebran Bassil, also improved its tally, giving massive control to Hezbollah and its allies in any future government. Hariri’s party lost a chunk of seats while his ally Lebanese Forces gained massively. In total, Saudi allied block lost their majority and influence. This came as a huge relief to Iran, which had seen spirited diplomatic and political onslaught by Riyadh off late to undermine its increasing influence in the region.

Lebanese Christian President, michael aoun, a Hezbollah ally, refused to accept hariri’s resignati on and joined voices with hassan Nasrallah

What does this victory mean for Iran? Juan Cole has an answer. “One big takeaway, it seems to me, is that Saudi Arabia shot itself in the foot three times with regard to Lebanon. It supported Salafi jihadis like the Army of Islam around Damascus, who thundered about killing members of ethnic minorities. Then MBS kidnapped Hariri, underlining that he was literally captive to Riyadh. Then MBS kissed up to the Israel lobbies and threw the Palestinians under the bus. Israel is not popular with Lebanese Sunni Arabs, who stayed home in droves during the polls. With this kind of regional policy, no wonder Saudi Arabia is losing to a much cannier Iran. Not able to compete because of horrible policy, MBS has to run to Trump to plead with him to hit out at Iran on Riyadh’s behalf.”
Victory in Lebanon also means that it shall no more be used as a launch-pad to destabilise Syria. Although Hezbollah already has its men in security system who thwart any anti-Syrian move at the bud, its more powerful showing in the election would mean more influence in other ministries as well such as the Interior Ministry that deals with internal security.
The defeat of Saudi styled Salafism would force Hariri to also reconsider his stock. His closeness with the Saudis at the cost of Lebanese interest has cost him massively in this election, and a change, of course, is in order.
The results are also a big wake-up call for Druze leader and political broker Walid Jumblatt who has also lost some seats. Ever a political opportunist, Jumblatt has realised that it is time to shift allegiance again as Bashar al Assad is there to stay in Syria, and that Hezbollah and Iranian influence in Lebanon cannot be undermined. I would not be surprised if Jumblatt starts to give pro-Damascus statements in the coming weeks. In fact, sources in Syria maintain that he might up the ante and actually visit Damascus in the guise of discussing “important matters of regional and international importance.” Those who keep an eye on Lebanon maintain that there is pretty little that is beyond Jumblatt.
This also means that Iran can supply Hezbollah with weapons and other items without the fear of any intervention by the Lebanese state. This is a big setback to Israeli-Saudi design. Israel, which lost a war with Hezbollah in 2006, is itching to pick a fight. With no support from the political formation in Beirut to rein in Hezbollah, it will think twice before starting a widespread conflict again. Especially because it knows that Hezbollah has increased its arsenal by several times, and the next war will prove costly to Israelis, even if they manage to flatten the entire Southern Lebanon. And by assuring so, Iran has brought the war at the doorstep of Israel, something that the latter never wanted to or imagined.

The result s are also a big wakeup call for Druze leader and politic al broker Walid Jumblatt who has also lost some seats

However, Lebanon is not the only reason Iran is emboldened. There’s the small matter of Iraqi elections as well. Like in Lebanon, Iraqi political landscape is also fragmented on sectarian lines, albeit informally.
Saudi had put its hope in the resurgence of Sunni parties in Iraq. Along with the sidelining of pro-Iran Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) or Hashad al Shabi, which had fought election alone after its falling out with Prime Minister Haidar al Abadi, who was extremely confident of his performance.
Firebrand leader Moqtada al Sadr, who fought the election in alliance with the Iraqi Communist Party, performed remarkably well in an election that was marred by very low voter turnout. In a scenario where voter turnout is minimal, a party like Sadr’s that is rooted in cadres performs well.
Prior to the election, Sadr had spoken against Iran and Assad off and on. However to think that Sadr will ally with Saudi and the US against Iranian interests in Iraq is laughable. Saudis will soon realise that controlling Sadr is impossible, leave alone making him do things. Sadr’s spirited performance will also bring together all the other warring Shia factions. PMU under HaiderAmiri had performed remarkably well as well and has stood second after Sadr’s alliance. It is followed by Prime Minister Abadi’s alliance and then ex-PM Maliki’s.
Under the circumstances it looks plausible that Maliki, Amiri and Abadi will bury their hatchet to minimise the influence of Sadr, even if they have to take Sadr’s support for forming the government. This will benefit Iran to no end.
As far as Abadi is concerned, he will likely agree to the status quo but will vehemently oppose any effort by the United States or the Gulf States to open a front against Iran. There are two reasons for this. Abadi, according to the sources, knows that Iran has no imperial designs in Iraq. He is however afraid that US and Gulf states might decide to use it as a front against Iran destabilising the entire state. Abadi wants to avoid that scenario, and while maintaining friendly functional relationship with the United States, it will likely curb any anti-Iran behaviour.
Abadi is also in principle agreed to allow Iran to use Iraqi territory for a supply route to Syria and Hezbollah, and will not be in a position to deny such a request. Any government will be dependent on Maliki and PMU and hence Iran can make Haidar’s life hell if he decides to outsmart Iran. Abadi’s personal beef with IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani is separate from his relationship with Tehran. He is way too smart to let these things affect his relationship with Iran.
Saudi Arabia, like in the past, was betting huge over the joint list of Vice President Osama Nujafi, Jamal Karbuli and Khamis Khanjar. Sources maintain that it supported the list through multi-million dollar funding. However as the coalition performed rather poorly in the election, its influence on the coming government in Baghdad will be further eroded. Saudi Arabia has also been using some of the clergymen in Sunni province to sway voters, however Haidar Al Abadi has effectively neutralised them by aligning with Sunni Sheikh Ahmed Al-Kubaisi and Sunni Endowment chief Abdul Latif Al Humanism.

Saudi Arabia, like in the past, was betti ng huge over the joint list of Vice President Osama Nujafi, Jamal Karbuli and Khamis Khanjar

Saudi Arabia wants Nujafi to pressurize Baghdad to allow a Sunni autonomous region in Anbar, Nineveh and Salheddin on the example and model of Kurdish regions in the North. However neither Abadi, nor Maliki nor even Iyad Alawi has any appetite for this model.
Where do all these leave Sunnis of Iraq? At this point, there is little risk of a sectarian fight because Sunnis have given up following the election results. They also realise that their MPs will have minimal say in the affairs of the state now. However, a sizable chunk of young Sunni voters is looking forward to a possible alliance between Alawi’s List and Moqtada Sadr’s List in the future. However, they first need to see if such an alliance is feasible for a longer period or is just a momentary arrangement driven by short-term gains. In most of the liberated areas, Sunnis will most likely move away from Saudi supported formations towards other options.
However this is not to suggest that Iran’s grip on Iraq is complete and total. Far from it. Iran in fact understands its limitation in Iraq and has no imperial design. It however understands the importance of good relationship with Baghdad.
Explains Elijah Magnier, veteran Middle East expert, “There is no doubt that Iraq and Iran have many strong relationships in common. The majority of Iraqis are Shia, and that imposes a continuous link and connection between both countries due to the presence of the Shia Imams – related to the Prophet Mohammad – in both Iran and Iraq. Religious tourism is important and represents billions of dollars of income to both countries. Iraqis consider the love for Iran like eating fish (an Iraqi say): “Ma’qul… Mazmoum” which means you like it, you eat it but you want to get rid of its remains quickly. Mesopotamia will not offer obedience to Iran even if it fights with its sword. This is a hint to leaders of Shia group.”
The clear loser here will be the United States as it will lose its power to substantially influence the Iraqi Parliament. Its hope to use Iraq as a base to destabilise Iran is now shattered. PMU will assure that no such things happen. PMU has the power and the wherewithal not only to massively hurt American troops in Iraq, it can do so in Syria as well where American troops are based in Kurdish SDF region. PMU’s pro-Iran faction will continue to operate independently, though underground, and will act as the Iranian tool. However, Iran will use them only if it believes that US and Gulf allies are trying to establish a base in Iraq to undermine its position.
Sources close to PMU say that in case United States decides to remain in Syria for long, and tries to disrupt Iran-SyriaHezbollah channel, pro-Iran PMU will be used to harass and attack US coalition forces from Iraqi side as, the same role proAssad tribal militia will play on the Syrian side. Under the circumstances it is singularly impossible for Iran to allow all the units of PMU to either be merged inside Iraqi Army or disbanded. These groups will remain below radar, but will continue to operate whether Abadi likes it or not.
And then, there is this small matter of Russia as well. Abadi, who is most probably going to be the Prime Minister again, is planning big hardware purchases from Russia is the near and long-term future, and is under the impression, according to the sources, that at the time of emergency Russia can be trusted more to help than the US. The initial hesitance of Obama to come to Iraq’s rescue against Daesh, and his refusal to let Iraq use ammunitions and arms that could have been easily transferred from US bases in the Gulf to Baghdad has completely eroded Iraqi political class’ trust in the US. So while Abadi is personally willing to continue good relations with the Americans, the Iraqi political class will likely diversify their options by giving Russia more and more footprints in Iraq. A quad treaty between Damascus-Baghdad-Moscow-Tehran is already in place and is likely to further strengthen through joint exercises and deep military and intelligence cooperation in the future.
“As far as the US is concerned, no one takes into consideration what Washington likes or dislikes. In fact, many Iraqi leaders consider any US interference in the postelection dialogue will be counterproductive to any candidate supported by the American establishment,” added Magnier in good measure.
The elections in Lebanon and Iraq, which the US-Saudi-Israeli alliance had hoped would undermine Iran, have ended up strengthening it further. While the current dispensation in Tehran does not want confrontation, it very well understands that Iranian voters never forgive a coward. And Rouhani will most certainly not like to be seen as one. This will result in a foreign policy that is muscular without being overarching into other’s turf.