On Wednesday Lebanese President Michel Suleiman denied accusations that the country’s new government—formed five months after Hezbollah and its allies forced the collapse of the previous government—is a client of Syria and Iran. “This government is 100 percent Lebanese, with a 100 percent Lebanese agenda,” Suleiman stated at the cabinet’s first meeting. Yet the 30-member cabinet is dominated by the pro-Syrian March 8 bloc led by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah, which gained an unprecedented majority of 18 seats. Prime Minister Najib Miqati claimed that this outcome “does not mean that the country will join the radical camp in terms of its relations with the international community.” This battle, however, was already lost.
Hezbollah’s dominance of the new government is hardly unexpected. In the months preceding its withdrawal from the Lebanese government in January, the organization launched a fierce rhetorical campaign to de-legitimize the UN-backed tribunal charged with investigating the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The tribunal’s indictments would likely implicate Hezbollah operatives, damage the group’s reputation, and lead to the arrest and public trial of those involved. Consequently, Hezbollah staged the takedown of the former pro-Western government led by Saad Hariri with the help of its opportunistic March 8 allies. Now that Hezbollah benefits from a majority stake in the government, the tribunal stands even less of a chance of effectively carrying out its mission; in the event the tribunal issues indictments at all—an unlikely scenario by all accounts—Hezbollah would readily use its power to block the arrest of its members and, in doing so, violate Lebanon’s international obligation. Removing this threat has allowed the organization to focus its efforts on further consolidating its power base in Lebanon and lending support to Tehran and Damascus.
Hezbollah and Iran have publicly supported Syrian President Bashar al Assad in the face of mounting international and internal pressure regarding his brutal repression of pro-reform protests. In May, for instance, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad separately expressed their commitment to Assad’s stability and shared the opinion that neither of their respective countries should interfere in Syrian internal affairs. As Ahmadinejad put it, “the [Syrian] government and the people of Syria have reached a level of maturity to solve their own problem by themselves.” On Monday, Assad congratulated his Lebanese counterpart with suspicious alacrity following the cabinet’s formation. Hezbollah’s political rise is a huge boon not only for Assad but also for the organization’s main financial supporter, Iran.
The Obama administration has reacted cautiously to this most recent blow to American influence in the region. Department of State Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner explained that the current assessment is “to wait and see what the final government looks like.” Arguably, this “wait and see” approach to critical developments in the Middle East has not worked extraordinarily well for the United States thus far.
Katherine Faley is a research analyst for AEI’s Critical Threats Project.