Hezbollah and Iran: the New Masters of Lebanon?

This is no longer a smoke screen or a typical Iranian ploy or even a merchant's negotiation tactic. Hezbollah, Iran's Lebanese power house, has made it clear: Lebanon could soon become an Iranian front basis, a thousand miles closer to Europe and a stone's throw from Israel's northern border. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit last month to Lebanon marked Iran's next move in the region. Iran has decided to openly become a major player in the Middle East, and give the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri an offer it can't refuse: extricate Hezbollah from the forthcoming turmoil likely to be stirred by the imminent accusation of Hezbollah by an International Tribunal in the investigation of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the current Prime Minister's father, or start packing.

According to a report published Monday by the Lebanese al-Akhbar newspaper, Hezbollah has sent a strong and bold signal of its intentions to corner Hariri and take effective control of Lebanon. Hezbollah conducted a simulation of the zero hour to demonstrate its ability to maintain a security and military grip on Lebanon, thereby giving its Iranian master the coveted reins over Lebanon. The newspaper also reports that the simulation preceded an electronic Israeli simulation for a future war with Hezbollah.

Why now?

Hasan Nassarallah, Hezbollah's leader, understands that the moment of truth is approaching fast. It is widely expected that the International Tribunal for the investigation of the assassination of Rafik Hariri will conclude that Hezbollah is responsible for Hariri's death. Therefore, it's not a coincidence that Hezbollah flexed a muscle demonstrating its ability to deploy security and political forces and effectively control Lebanon, without bloodshed and without targeting citizens or residential areas.

The fast deployment was carried out in less than two hours, and was "designed to hold a security and military grip on large areas of Lebanon," Al-Akhbar wrote. The report said that the targets included centers and sites as well as political, military and security figures. The report said Hezbollah's plan includes pinning down the Lebanese officials' whereabouts and arresting them "in order to curtail their movement and get hold of major cities in Lebanon."

Why did Hezbollah go public now?

The public disclosure by Hezbollah of its military maneuvers and its intended political message is unusual for this secretive organization. However, the prospects of victory made Hezbollah take that move. They are taking advantage of a rare opportunity: the other major players are busy. The U.S is preoccupied with the mid-term elections and the Saudis are busy basking in the glory of helping the U.S detect the potentially fatal bomb packages sent from Yemen. Behind the scene, Saudi King Abdullah is also attempting to broker a settlement that would leave both Iran and the U.S out of the picture. Israel is monitoring the situation closely, but is making no overt moves.

The message that comes from Hezbollah and Tehran to the West is clear. Get rid of the International Tribunal for the investigation of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, or face turning Lebanon into an Iranian base.

What could the U.S or the U.N do?

As long as there's a legitimate government in Lebanon, it can look back to see what previous Lebanese governments did under similar circumstances: cry for outside help.
In 1958 a rebellion broke out in Lebanon, and 5,000 U.S Marines were sent to Beirut following a request of the Lebanese government. After the crisis subsided, a new government was formed and the Marines left.

In 1982, following repeated attacks on its civilian centers by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Israel invaded Lebanon. Ten days later, the Israeli Army were entrenched outside Beirut, forcing Yasser Arafat, the PLO leader, to leave Lebanon under the auspices of a Multinational Force comprised of U.S. Marines and French and Italian forces.

Will the U.S or other western nations agree to intervene again in Lebanon? That will not be an easy decision. On April 18, 1983, the U.S. embassy in West Beirut was bombed, killing 63 people. Later this year the Multinational Force suffered a devastating blow when suicide bombers drove a truck laden with explosives into the U.S. Marine and French Paratrooper barracks in Beirut, killing 241 American and 58 French soldiers. Therefore, with a growing opposition in the U.S to the war in Afghanistan, it is unclear what the U.S administration will do: send troops again, or sit on the sideline watching the Lebanese government collapse into the receiving Iranian hands.

In this zero sum game, the clever merchants of Iran created again a win-win situation for themselves, and a lose-lose situation for the West. Unless the West intervenes, Lebanon's fate is doomed. It is too coveted a prize for the Iranians to let go, under any circumstances. On the other hand, U.S intervention could be costly in human lives and may only delay the process, not eliminate it. The unavoidable conclusion is that the U.S and allies must choose the lesser evil. A bold and immediate move led by the U.N or the U.S, or we will soon see Lebanon as an Iranian base on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.