Is President Michel Aoun a Victory for Iran in Beirut?

Analysts who find it difficult to understand Lebanese dynamics without resorting to black and white explanations have had a hard time understanding the election of Michel Aoun as the 13th president of the Lebanese Republic. If only they had listened to a journalist who once wrote, after trying to understand the complexities of internal Lebanese politics: “Lebanon is not for amateurs.”

Accustomed to classifying individuals and political parties according to a “with us” and “against us” mentality, Michel Aoun was described as Iran’s man in Beirut (including in the Iranian press), and the presidential elections were described as a battle that Iran won and where Lebanon has become aligned with Iran. More dangerously, it was described as a setback for Lebanese Sunnis who now have to endure a humiliating defeat due to the Shiite hegemony over Lebanese politics.

As the following lines will try to show, this is far from the truth and only serves to fuel sectarian tensions at a time where a national entente has taken place and where the largest Sunni, Christian, Shii, and Druze parties have voted for a President who enjoys the largest base of support among Lebanon’s Christian community. Thus to claim that Aoun is Iran’s man in Beirut is to claim that Iran currently enjoys the backing of all major Lebanese parties, and that is simply not true. And such a discourse only benefits those with an interest in sabotaging the recent rapprochement that has taken place in an attempt to revive Lebanon’s institutions after a presidential vacuum of two and a half years.

To be sure, Lebanon is undeniably deeply affected by the regional political divide between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and particularly with the Syrian civil war that has had a drastic political and economic effect on the country, owing in part to the large influx of refugees into a country that already struggles to come up with a proper waste disposal plan and to provide citizens with basic services.

While Paul Salem is correct in that “regionally, Aoun’s election would be a victory for Iranian influence in the Levant and a blow for Saudi Arabia,” it is important to understand and measure the extent of this blow and to assess whether it is indeed a drastic blow to Saudi Arabia’s influence, or merely a symbolic setback.

In other words, to claim that Michel Aoun is Iran’s man in Beirut is to completely ignore other dynamics that were at the very least as important as the regional agreements that have led to a resolution to the Presidential void in Lebanon.

Aoun is the leader of the largest Christian party in Parliament. Furthermore, after his entente with Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, the two parties enjoy a clear majority among the Christian population of Lebanon. Lebanon’s president by custom should be a Maronite (Eastern Catholic) Christian and in itself, the respect for the Christian community’s candidate was considered a symbolic victory for the country as the rest of the region struggles with extremist ideologies, and where Christian communities describe their experience in the Middle East as an “existential struggle” or a “struggle to exist”.

Beyond this dimension, claiming that Iran won the battle in Lebanon is also short-sighted given the fact that Saad Hariri, a Sunni strongman who is a vocal critic of Bachar Assad and the Iranian regime, was the “kingmaker” or arguably the most influential kingmaker in the process. Had it not been for Hariri’s endorsement of Aoun, Aoun would never have been able to return to the Presidential palace. Furthermore, the common understanding is that Hariri himself will become the Prime Minister, five years after his government fell and amidst a general mood since 2011 that Hezbollah would not allow him to return to the premiership.

Whilst a fierce critic of Hezbollah, Hariri’s premiership would benefit the party, according to Bilal Saab writing in Foreign Affairs because “it would be promoting moderate Sunni politics and advancing Sunni-Shiite rapprochement at a time when sectarian tensions in the region are at an all-time high. The alternative is Lebanese Sunni politicians who are hot-headed or who have even flirted with extremist ideology.”

In short, Hariri’s appointment as PM can hardly be called a victory for Iran. As Saab noted, “it’s not as if Hezbollah was a total winner, either. It too had to make concessions.” Also worth mentioning is the fact that the other presidential candidate, Sleiman Frangieh, as Paul Salem rightly notes, “has been a more long-standing and reliable ally of the Assad family, Hezbollah, and Iran and would have been the safer pick for the March 8 coalition.”

The point here is related to the balance of power in Lebanon’s current system. The PM and not the president is the key executive position in the country, and within the current agreement, it is Saudi Arabia that gets its closest ally in Lebanon, Saad Hariri, as PM (as seems to be the case at the time of writing). The Hariri-Aoun rapprochement will also have an effect on Aoun who will probably be more conciliatory towards Hariri and Saudi Arabia, and his party (the FPM) will in turn most likely work with the Future Movement in the coming months in order to deliver on their decade-old promise of change and reform - a promise that would require a successful anti-corruption effort that is, in the current climate, extremely difficult to achieve.

The most recent agreement in Lebanon deserves a grace period. It is perhaps my naive optimism and hope for a chance of moving a few baby steps forward, focusing on internal and domestic affairs rather than worrying about Saudi Arabia and Iran and their victories and defeats; and focusing on Lebanese citizens and their urgent needs for a functioning government and parliament rather than an obsession with narrow sectarian allegiances and grievances.

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