As the Assad regime in Syria teeters on the edge of a cliff, Iran is trying to strengthen its economic and political ties to Lebanon. While the Iranians do have their supporters among Lebanon’s poor Shia communities and in Hezbollah, many other Lebanese view the Iranians with deep suspicion.As recently as April, an enormous delegation of Iranian businessmen and politicians visited Beirut to promote closer cultural and economic cooperation between Iran and Lebanon.The NYT reports:
Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, Iran’s first vice president, arrived in Beirut a couple of weeks ago with at least a dozen proposals for Iranian-financed projects tucked under his arm, one for virtually every ministry, Lebanese officials said. The size of the Iranian delegation — more than 100 members — shocked government officials. Lebanese newspapers gleefully reported embarrassing details of the wooing; in their haste to repeat their success in forging closer ties with Iraq, for example, the Iranians forgot to replace the word Baghdad with Beirut in one draft agreement.Iran offered to build the infrastructure needed to carry electricity across Iraq and Syria into Lebanon. It offered to underwrite Persian-language courses at Lebanon’s public university. Other proposals touched on trade, development, hospitals, roads, schools and, of course, the Balaa Dam in Tannourine.
Tehran enjoys blind support from Hezbollah. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s chief, spoke to a crowd in southern Beirut not long ago, proclaiming the glorious impact of Iranian money on Lebanese society.Other Lebanese are more cautious and suspicious of the Islamic Republic. In Tannourine, a small Christian town in the hills of Mount Lebanon, a dam project brought those suspicions into the open.
A prominent Christian politician trying to one-up his rivals asked the Islamic republic for $40 million for the dam, and Iran agreed last December, provided an Iranian company built it. Most of the solidly Christian area’s population was horrified by the prospect that the Iranians would move in, said Mr. [Mounir] Torbay [Tannourine’s mayor], most likely bringing their mosques, their wives and perhaps even their missiles. Many suspect that some company with links to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps will get the contract.“We want the dam badly, but we don’t want an Iranian company to build it,” the mayor said. “They are from a different religion, a different social condition.”
Locals are not the only resistance to the spread of Iranian influence and largess in Lebanon. The Arab states in the Gulf are also deeply intertwined with Lebanon’s economy and culture. The Saudis in particular have devoted millions of dollars over the past decade or more to help Lebanon rebuild after years of civil war and successive Israeli invasions. Lebanon’s Christian community has important cultural and historical ties to France.But Assad’s downfall would put a huge dent in Iran’s ability to project influence in the Arab and Mediterranean worlds. Lebanon, where it already enjoys support from powerful groups, is the logical replacement. But Hezbollah does not quite have the control of Lebanon’s politics and economy that the Assad regime does (or did) in Syria, and so it can’t be relied on to establish Lebanon as the next Persian proxy on the Mediterranean. The Iranians’ entreaties will be resisted, but it won’t stop them from trying.