Dhaka, Bangladesh
Iraq, Lebanon must choose between voters' will and Iran's theocratic isolation

Iraq, Lebanon must choose between voters' will and Iran's theocratic isolation

By Baria Alamuddin

A decade ago, regional decision-makers breathed a sigh of relief at a deal that resolved yet another chronic bout of tension in Lebanon. However, this 2008 "Doha Accord" proved to be a poison pill, conferring upon Hezbollah a "blocking third" of the governing system - a political weight they never relinquished - enabling Tehran and Hezbollah to time after time put the political process in a chokehold until other parties eventually cave in. Hassan Nasrallah today behaves as if he has a God-given right to always obtain everything he demands - and to hell with the consequences for Lebanon. Saad Hariri's long-running efforts to form a government are being thwarted by Nasrallah's insistence on normalized relations with Bashar Assad. This is the same Assad who colluded with Hezbollah to assassinate Saad's father, Rafiq Hariri. And the same Assad who threatened to "break Lebanon" over Rafiq Hariri's head if he didn't submit to Damascus' demands. Assad has devolved from regional strongman to Iranian puppet, so Saad Hariri is unsurprisingly unwilling to prostrate himself and humiliate Lebanon. We hope he stands his ground, but such aggressive brinkmanship over every issue has become exhausting and prohibitively costly for Lebanon. Likewise, after each round of Iraqi elections Tehran dogmatically blocks all efforts at government formation until it obtains the Cabinet it wants. Iran's paramilitary allies, Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, won a miserable 48 out of 329 seats in the May elections - one wonders how they could hope to demand any influence at all. Yet all Iran needs is a sufficient parliamentary rump to block all alternative configurations until it has bribed, threatened and cajoled enough politicians into accepting its writ. Iraq and Lebanon are the only states I can think of where political life is routinely obstructed for months or years during wrangling over the choice of Cabinets and ministers. A veteran diplomat warned me that a Tehran-aligned government in Baghdad could precipitate "economic war" between Iran and the West, with Europeans and Americans potentially shut out of Iraqi markets altogether. Hence Prime Minister Haider Abadi's impossible situation: If Iraq wants to do business with the West, US sanctions must be respected. Yet Tehran's ayatollahs would see Iraqis starve before allowing Baghdad's leaders to compromise on this issue. This is one crisis Abadi can't spin his way out of by smiling and telling both sides what they want to hear. US sanctions may thus paradoxically force Iraq even more tightly into Iran's poisoned embrace, compelling it to suicidally distance itself from the global financial system. We will soon see whether Iraq and Lebanon's politicians have the foresight to open their nations to the international community - or bow to Iran and embrace dysfunctional, theocratic isolation. Having grown up in Lebanon, I understand that this small nation will probably always be a playground for regional powers. However, not all foreign powers are equally malign. Post-war Germany was divided into American, British, French and Russian spheres of influence. The three Western powers exerted their influence with a lighter touch and West Germany was consequently transformed from bombed-out fascist dictatorship to modern miracle in two decades. East Germany, meanwhile, was the vanguard of the USSR's aggressive efforts to expand communism, and consequently it stagnated and imploded. Similar tendencies are obvious in Lebanon: After the civil war, certain areas enjoyed massive Gulf Cooperation Council and Western investment and became the luxuriant envy of the Middle East. Other areas went backwards under stultifying theocratic misrule, economic neglect, and the terrible impact of the narcotics trade. Yet it is the backwards-looking theocratic model that is in the ascendancy, particularly after Hezbollah waded through rivers of blood to portray itself as the victor in Syria. The once-mighty, Arab, oil-rich Iraq is today a broken nation; no more able to avoid Iranian imperialism than tiny Lebanon. We would like to buy into Muqtada Al-Sadr's rose-tinted vision of a sovereign Iraq rejecting all foreign interference, but in the real world Lebanon and Iraq require backing from benign regional powers in shaping their destinies away from the three evils of militancy, corruption and sectarianism. Pro-Iranian parties in Baghdad - despite what is often said - are not unassailably popular or dominant. They aren't even the leading force within the Shiite political constellation. Yet these proxies have won by exploiting Tehran's muscle to force other parties into line and outmaneuver their rivals, sometimes by playing their cards more cleverly and sometimes by digging in their heels until others acquiesce. Iran is not a dominant global player, despite how it is often portrayed. It is a second-rate regional pariah in terminal decline because of its leaders' behavior. Iran wants to permanently drag Iraq and Lebanon into that growing cluster of outcast pariah states that are ostracized because they can't and won't play by the international rules. Why would any sane Iraqi want this for their nation? Lebanon has been partly shielded by its well- educated, diverse and liberal communities, who reject the writ of Wilayat Al-Faqih - but how long can they hold out? Rather than Hariri and Abadi being compelled to beat a lonely path to Damascus and Tehran, there are infinitely greater opportunities on offer by unambiguously re-engaging with the Arab heartland. When Iran suddenly pulled the plug on electricity supplies to southern Iraq this summer - precipitating nationwide protests - it was Kuwait that stepped in, restoring light and air-conditioning to Iraqi homes. We have seen huge investments from the GCC and other Arab states in Iraqi reconstruction, infrastructure and the private sector. Donald Trump's administration has, meanwhile, been seeking Russian support in curbing Iran's regional influence. In May, the vast majority of Iraqis voted for political parties opposed to Tehran's agenda. Now we get to see whether Iraq and Lebanon's politicians have the foresight to listen to voters and open their nations to the international community - or bow to Tehran and embrace dysfunctional, theocratic isolation.

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