By Raghida Dergham, The National: Washington's blessing of Israel’s determination to annex the West Bank, including the Jordan Valley, has given ramifications beyond Israeli and Palestinian borders.
It has given Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a pretext to use Lebanon as a launch pad for retaliation against Israel by shoring up the military capabilities of Iran's Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. This ultimately serves two purposes for Tehran: consolidating Iranian dominance over Lebanon and using it as a forward base for a ‘controlled war’ (consisting mainly of skirmishes) with Israel.
Lebanon plays a key role in Iran's broader confrontation with Israel. Beirut has been rocked by economic collapse, popular protest and – more recently – coronavirus for months, but in Tehran's view Lebanon only requires as much internal stability as Iranian leaders see fit. At the moment, it seems this involves preserving the current government led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab for as long as possible.
In Washington, it seems that the administration of President Donald Trump – particularly his son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and his team – is convinced that endorsing Israel’s provocations against Palestinians will not be met by any response from Arab states, even though its illegal annexation plan carries grave risks for US allies such as Jordan. Mr Kushner’s team is also convinced that the US should not worry about Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement that the Palestinian Authority is absolved of all agreements with the US and Israeli governments, including the security coordination accords that have made the PA a guarantor of Israeli security.
Mr Kushner, with support from Mr Trump, has concluded that the Mr Abbas would not deliver on this announcement because it would, in practice, result in the dissolution of the PA and the return of the Palestinian Territories Israeli administration. This would, however, be a negative outcome for Tel Aviv and the Washington, too, as it create a security meltdown or even an armed uprising that could even bleed into Israel.
The Trump administration is betting that neither the PA nor Arab states will respond seriously enough to Israel’s annexation move, and that Jordan would accept whatever loose guarantees it is offered.
This is where Iran comes in, and where the Trump administration's calculations become vague. Either the US administration has factored the annexation issue into its broader carrot-and-stick equation with Tehran, or it has dismissed the IRGC’s ability to use Hezbollah in Lebanon for retaliation because it has calculated that this would mean suicide for Hezbollah and Lebanon in the event of a military confrontation with Israel.
Iran is making preparations for either scenario. For this reason, it is currently focusing its efforts on Lebanon, developing both military and diplomatic options, with the latter developed behind the scenes.
High-level conversations are happening between the IRGC and the Iranian army, about Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Gulf. The purpose is to ensure Iranian preparedness for all scenarios, including a US-Iranian confrontation, especially in light of Washington’s determination to impose a new wave of sanctions that would further diminish Iran’s ability to export its oil.
Iran is also less concerned about the prospect of Israeli action against Hezbollah and Lebanon than Washington might think. It has its own cost-benefit analysis. One clear benefit is that Iran would be the unambiguous champion of the Palestinian cause at a time of Arab complacency, and this would help Tehran rally support on the ground level throughout the Arab world, including with Hamas in Gaza. Second, Iran believes that any war between Hezbollah and Tel Aviv would be one of attrition or limited surgical strikes, in which Hezbollah's total destruction is not in the cards.
Walid Jumblatt, one of Lebanon's most influential politicians, speaking at the third e-policy circle of the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi, said, “nothing will happen here [in Lebanon]." He added, “I see basically Jordan in danger. This is why Jordan should be helped by what is left of the Arab world…economically and socially."
Mr Jumblatt has backed Mr Abbas's desire to tear up any agreements that would result in a two-state solution because he hopes that the PA does indeed dissolve itself and ultimately “accept the occupation”.
Mr Jumblatt has also credited “Arab failure” on the Palestinian cause for Iran's empowerment, including within Lebanon. But the larger blame for Lebanese struggles, he believes, lie in Washington. Lebanon is torn, according to Mr Jumblatt, by an economic battle between the US and Iran, in which the US mistakenly believes that its sanctions will weaken Hezbollah. “Either we allow the Lebanese – I mean the Lebanese who believe in Lebanon – to become collateral damage because of [US] sanctions against Iran," he said, "or we consider how to actually help this part of Lebanon.”
This more accommodating view towards Iranian influence represents a remarkable about-face for Mr Jumblatt. It could be because of either his fear of Hezbollah or his keenness to preserve his interests by appeasing them.
If it is the latter, then Mr Jumblatt is not alone. Other attendees alongside Mr Jumblatt at the Beirut Institute event – including a former Iraqi minister, an ex-UN undersecretary general for political affairs and an Iranian journalist – believe that military confrontations are unlikely at the time being, especially between the US and Iran ahead of American elections. However, some observers believe the opposite is true. We should therefore wait and see, because when it comes to the struggle between Iran, the US and their respective allies and proxies, there is always the possibility of a surprise looming on the horizon.
Raghida Dergham is the founder and executive chairwoman of the Beirut Institute
Cartoon by Carlos Latuff