Iran Steps up Efforts to Expand Its Influence in Lebanon

By Ahmad Majidyar | Fellow and Director of IranObserved Project - The Middle East Institute | Jan 09, 2017
Iran Steps up Efforts to Expand Its Influence in Lebanon

On January 6, a high-level Iranian parliamentary delegation visited Beirut and pledged to provide military aid to the Lebanese army. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the chairman of Iranian Parliament’s Committee for Foreign Policy and National Security, said the Islamic Republic was “determined to arm Lebanon’s army,” but added that the implementation of the plan was contingent upon Beirut’s approval. Fars News Agency (FNA) also published Boroujerdi’s photos while paying tribute at the tomb of Imad Mughniyah, Hezbollah’s former international operations chief who was killed in Syria in 2008.

Borujerdi arrived in Lebanon after a trip to Damascus, where he held talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other top government officials.

Victory for “Islamic Resistance”

When the Lebanese parliament elected Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian allied with Hezbollah, as the country’s president on October 31, Iranian leaders celebrated the news as a “victory” for its Shiite ally Hezbollah and for the “Islamic Resistance” against Israel. President Hassan Rouhani phoned Aoun to convey Tehran’s continued support, and Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif was the first foreign top diplomat to meet with the new president.

Iranian leaders also see the election of Aoun as an opportunity to further expand Iran’s influence over Lebanon. Boroujerdi’s trip to Beirut and the pledge of military aid are part of that agenda. On November 22, Hezbollah’s Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qassem told Tasnim News Agency, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), that Hezbollah would urge the new Lebanese government to accept Iran’s military assistance. In the past, Beirut has rejected Tehran’s offer for military aid.

Tehran’s Rivalry with Saudi Arabia

Iranian leaders are cautiously optimistic that Aoun’s election would bring Lebanon closer to Iran and further away from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

Last February, Saudi Arabia canceled a $3 billion military aid package to Lebanon in a protest at the prominent role of Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanese affairs. But signs that relations between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia may be thawing are troubling Tehran.

On November 21, a senior Saudi delegation led by Makkah Governor Prince Khaled Al Faisal visited Beirut to convey Riyadh’s support for the new Lebanese government. Al Faisal met senior Lebanese officials, including Aoun, who accepted an invitation to visit Riyadh after the formation of a new cabinet. The meeting indicated a willingness by Beirut and Riyadh to repair troubled ties.

But the Saudi visit raised alarm in Tehran. FNA, an IRGC-affiliated outlet, for example, suggested that Al Faisal’s trip was aimed at shaping Beirut’s policy vis-à-vis Syria in favor of Saudi Arabia. It warned: “Riyadh has returned to Lebanon to bring together the Christians and Sunnis to secure its interests in Lebanon, and hinder Iran’s influence and Hezbollah’s empowerment not only in Lebanon but also in the region.”

Iran’s “Soft Power” Influence

Iran’s efforts to promote its influence in Lebanon are not limited to its military and financial aid to Hezbollah. Iran uses myriad soft power tools – including cultural, educational, media and informational, religious, humanitarian and reconstruction programs – to expand its ideological and political sphere of influence in Lebanon, with a particular focus on the Shiite community. These efforts are aimed at enhancing the image and strength of Hezbollah, justify Iranian presence and influence in Lebanon as well as its ties with Hezbollah, and turn public opinion in Lebanon against the United States, Israel and Sunni Arab countries.

It is worth noting that Iran’s soft power tools are not benign, but are linked with Tehran’s broader expansionist agenda in the region. Many Iranian charity, educational and cultural organizations in Lebanon are a cover for the IRGC and its elite Quds Force operatives to function in Lebanon and Syria without detection. For example, the IRGC established the Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon (ICRL) after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war to rebuild Hezbollah-dominated regions in southern Lebanon; two years later, the United States Department of Treasury designated the ICRL as a terrorist organization because it “financed and facilitated” the activities of Hezbollah, a US-designated terrorist organization. Hassan Shateri, a Quds Force commander, headed the ICRL under the pseudonym Hessam Khoshnevis from its inception until he was killed in Syria in February 2013. According to Hassan Hijazi, a Hezbollah operative who worked with Shateri, the Quds Force commander had implemented over 5,000 construction and reconstruction projects in Lebanon. It was also the ICRL that built Hezbollah’s secret fiber optics network that sparked a dangerous political and military crisis in Lebanon in 2008.

The Imam Khomeini Relief Committee (IKRC) is another entity that promotes Iran’s ideological agenda in Lebanon. Established in 1986 and disguised as a charity organization, the IKRC’s Lebanon branch has thousands of Lebanese citizens under its payroll and provides social services in more than 400 Lebanese cities and rural regions. In August 2010, the US Department of Treasury designated IKRC’s Lebanon branch as a foreign terrorist organization because it “fund[s] and operate[s] Hizballah youth training camps.” IKRC, which implements joint projects with the Quds Force and the Basij Sazendagi Sepah-e Pasdaran (IRGC’s Construction Basij), operates in many other countries, including Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

The Way Forward

As the United States is primarily focused on fighting the so-called Islamic State, and the Syrian regime is entirely preoccupied with its own civil war, Iran has successfully filled the gap and has become the most influential external player in Lebanon at the expense of the US and its regional allies’ interests. With Iranian assistance, Hezbollah – a US-designated terrorist organization - has become a dominant player in Lebanese affairs and functions as a state within a state.

Lebanon’s small size and population must not obscure the country’s significance to the Middle East’s stability and US geopolitical interests in the region. In December 2009, President Barack Obama correctly stated that “Lebanon is a critical country in a critical region, and we want to do everything that we can to encourage a strong, independent, and democratic Lebanon.” Over the past seven years, the Obama administration provided about $1 billion dollar in aid to Lebanon to achieve that goal, especially to strengthen the Lebanese army and security institutions. In August 2016, Washington delivered military equipment worth $50 million as part of its efforts to help Lebanon fend off potential threats from terrorist groups in neighboring Syria. At the time of the delivery, US Ambassador to Lebanon Elizabeth Richard said Lebanon was the fifth-largest recipient of American military aid.

However, the continuing political and security problems in the country and the growing role of Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanese affairs indicate that US policy vis-à-vis Lebanon requires renewed attention. To preserve Lebanon’s stability and contain Iran’s influence in the country, the incoming Trump administration must engage with Lebanon more actively and increase US financial and military commitments to the country. A sovereign, stable and democratic Lebanon is vital for regional stability and for containment of US adversaries in the region, including Iran and Hezbollah as well as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Washington must make it clear to the Lebanese government that it opposes all forms of Iranian military aid to the Lebanese army. Instead, the US government should work with its regional allies to develop a comprehensive strategy to strengthen Lebanon’s state institutions – particularly the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces – and to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon.