As Israeli bombs killed hundreds of Lebanese in the summer of 2006, then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the people of Lebanon that they were simply experiencing "the birth pangs of a new Middle East." That new Middle East was on view during the two-day visit to Lebanon this week by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and it looks nothing like the vision pursued by the Bush Administration's military-driven strategy of dividing the region into "moderate" and "radical" camps locked in a fight to the finish.
Ahmadinejad is certainly in deep trouble at home, and grandstanding in the international limelight of controversy, whether at the United Nations last month or on south Lebanon's border with Israel on Thursday, certainly offers temporary respite from domestic challenges. Even while his thugs have managed to quiet the streets from protests by the Green Movement, his mismanagement of Iran's economy, amplified by the bite of sanctions, and his alienation of rival conservatives and of the clerics, has prompted vicious political infighting inside the corridors of power. But while Iran's president may be enjoying an opportunity to change the subject, his Lebanon visit nonetheless underscores three harsh truths for the U.S. and its allies. First, Iran is not nearly as isolated as Washington would like; secondly, the Bush Administration efforts to vanquish Tehran and its allies have failed; and, finally, the balance of forces in the region today prompts even U.S.-allied Arab regimes to engage pragmatically with a greatly expanded Iranian regional role.
Part of Ahmadinejad's agenda was simply to strike a defiant pose, affirming Iran's "resistance" posture and saluting its Hizballah protege for successfully resisting the 2006 Israeli invasion the Islamist group had provoked by snatching Israeli troops from across the border. The presence of the Iranian President, Israel's self-styled nemesis, declaring in the border town of Bint Jbail that "the Zionists will eventually disappear," may also have been intended to warn Israel off attacking Iran. Tehran has equipped Hizballah with a massive missile arsenal that many believe would be the first line of retaliation should Israel attack Iran's nuclear facilities.
Ahmadinejad's visit could, in fact, be deemed something of a belated victory lap celebrating the collapse of the erstwhile U.S. strategy. The Bush Administration may have hoped that its own invasion of Iraq and Israel's attacks on Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in late 2008 would strike decisive blows against Iran and its allies and turn the regional dynamic in favor of the U.S. But in all three places, Iran's influence was actually strengthened. If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki succeeds in winning a second term in office in Iraq, he'll owe his reelection to Iran's intervention to win him the necessary backing from its Shi'ite political allies. The U.S. may have hoped that Israel's 2006 offensive would finish off Hizballah but the movement is both militarily stronger and more firmly entrenched in Lebanon's body politic than ever before, with an effective veto power over government decisions. And neither the Israeli military campaign that began in the final days of 2008 nor the economic blockade of Gaza has managed to dislodge Hamas, while Washington's own Palestinian ally President Mahmoud Abbas has grown steadily weaker.
So, while the U.S. fretted that Iran, through its support for Hizballah, was undermining Lebanese sovereignty, it lacked the clout to persuade a Lebanese government led by pro-Western parties to block Ahmadinejad's visit. Instead, tens of thousands of Lebanese, mostly Hizballah supporters, turned out to salute their movement's patron. But the Iranian president didn't confine himself to huddling with Hizballah. He also met with Lebanon's Christian president, Michel Suleiman, and also with the Saudi- and U.S.-backed Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri. The latter meeting was particularly significant, because Hariri leads a coalition that has fought against Syrian and Iranian influence in Lebanon through Hizballah. And a U.N. investigation into the 2005 murder of Hariri's father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is believed to be planning to accuse members of Hizballah of the killing. Hizballah has denounced the investigation as an Israeli plot, and has warned that any move against Hizballah could bring down Hariri's government, causing political chaos and quite possibly renewed violence.
The leaders of Syria (which backs Hizballah) and Saudi Arabia flew to Beirut together in the summer, in an unprecedented show of unity aimed at dissuading their Lebanese allies from allowing the Hariri murder probe to disrupt the country's fragile stability. While Ahmadinejad's presence could be read as reinforcing a "don't-touch-Hizballah" message, he also appears to be placing a heavy stress on Lebanese unity and the need to avoid division. And he reportedly canvassed Saudi, Syrian and Jordanian leaders ahead of his trip. So he may be hoping to consolidate Iran's regional gains by signaling an intention to avoid intra-Arab confrontation in Lebanon. After all, while they will push back against Iran's role in the Arab world, even Arab regimes that are allies of the U.S. are forced by the relative strength of Tehran's allies there Hizballah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza and the Shi'ite parties in Iraq to seek a pragmatic modus vivendi that acknowledges Tehran's influence. President Bush's idea that the region's radicals could be eliminated in a winner-takes-all showdown has proven to be a chimera.