Iranian nuclear timelines/ Hezbollah threatened by Lebanon meltdown
Jun 30, 2020 | AIJAC staff
Update from AIJAC
This Update contains two articles outlining some increasingly urgent timelines for the world to deal with the Iranian nuclear crisis – including some policy advice for dealing with this challenge. It also features some good analysis of how the deteriorating situation in Lebanon is affecting Hezbollah – Iran’s most important regional proxy and effectively in charge in Beirut.
We lead with a piece from John Hannah, a former senior US national security official, looking at the alarming picture of Iran’s nuclear program painted by recent International Atomic Energy Agency reports. He notes they amount to findings that Iran is dramatically reducing its “break-out time” to a bomb, and also has undeclared nuclear material and activities. He warns that the current timeline is such that a back-up plan for the current US policy of maximum economic pressure on Iran may be necessary – including especially clear communication of some clear red lines to Iran that could offer effective deterrence to any major Iranian move toward nuclear weapons capabilities. For his full argument, CLICK HERE.
Next up, Michael Singh, an analyst from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, looks at a second Iran-related timeline – the countdown to the lifting of the UN arms embargo against Iran in October. He lays out how dangerous allowing Iran to freely trade in weapons could be and discusses why US efforts at the UN to extend the embargo will struggle to succeed in the face of Chinese and Russian opposition. He then lays out some policy options which he argues could bring about a compromise that will at least temporarily extend the arms embargo. For both Singh’s complete analysis and suggestions on breaking this diplomatic impasse, CLICK HERE. More on the arms embargo issue comes from Middle East proliferation expert Jason Brodsky.
Finally, Zvi Bar’el of Haaretz offers some knowledgeable insights into how Lebanon’s economic and political crisis is affecting Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia which dominates the Lebanese government. He notes that Hezbollah is clearly under pressure, and adduces a number of examples demonstrating how politicised prosecutions of opponents of the Shi’ite group are being ramped up as a way to silence those in Lebanon who oppose Hezbollah domination. Bar’el cites sources in Lebanon who warn that Hezbollah may threaten to start a war with Israel – something Lebanon simply cannot afford – as a way to force opponents to reject foreign aid and also veto internal efforts to force Hezbollah to disarm in exchange for that badly needed aid. For this well-informed look at Hezbollah’s dilemmas and prospects amidst Lebanon’s current severe crisis, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in…
- Former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on the danger of the International Monetary Fund bailing out Iran from US sanctions.
- The Wall Street Journal on the “China-Russia-Iran Arms Alliance”.
- More on the IAEA findings and Iran from Brig.-Gen. (res.) Jacob Nagel and Andrea Stricker from the Foundation for Defence of Democracies.
- The New York Times reports on the possible implications and different theories about a massive explosion at a missile factory in Iran at Parchin last Friday.
- Some suggestions on how the UN and US Administration can help salvage the situation in Lebanon from Lebanese Christian-born activist Toufic Baaklini.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Naomi Levin reports how the Royal Australian Navy played an important role in breaking the nexus between drug-smuggling and terror-funding in a recent deployment to the Persian Gulf.
- Oved Lobel discusses how Israel and Iran have launched a new era in Cyber-warfare in the Strategist, published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
- AIJAC’s statement welcoming “Australia’s principled decision to be the only country to vote against all five anti-Israel resolutions at the United Nations Human Rights Council.”
- Video of AIJAC’s latest webinar on the antisemitism problem in the British left, featuring former UK Labour MP Joan Ryan and noted academic expert Dr David Hirsh.
- Ariel Zohar on an important test on antisemitism for new UK Labour leader Keir Starmer – and how he passed it.
The Clock Is Ticking on the Next Iran Nuclear Crisis
Real Clear Defense, June 29, 2020
In early June, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released two reports on the Iranian nuclear program. They make for worrisome reading. A year into its decision to start breaching the constraints imposed by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran has begun crossing some important thresholds that dangerously reduce its breakout time for developing a nuclear weapon. As it does so, the specter of a possible military strike to destroy Iran’s nuclear project will inevitably reemerge.
In May 2019, exactly one year after President Donald Trump’s decision to abandon the JCPOA and reimpose crippling U.S. sanctions, President Hassan Rouhani announced Iran’s intention to stop observing some of its JCPOA commitments. Rouhani described the gambit as an effort to force the deal’s European participants (Germany, France, and Britain) to take steps to ensure that Iran would reap its economic benefits—either by convincing the Trump administration to relax its maximum pressure campaign or by circumventing U.S. sanctions and continuing to do business with Iran themselves.
Neither happened. In response, Iran has been good to its word. It has proceeded to violate incrementally one after another of the JCPOA’s restrictions—exceeding limits on its uranium stockpile, enriching beyond 3.67 percent to 4.5 percent, conducting research and development on additional advanced centrifuges, and resuming enrichment at the underground Fordow nuclear facility. At the same time, Iran insists that it has not withdrawn from the JCPOA and is prepared to reverse its violations once the U.S. comes back into compliance by unwinding sanctions. Importantly, the IAEA has thus far been allowed to continue its extensive inspections regime authorized by the JCPOA.
But those inspections paint an increasingly alarming picture. For the first time since the JCPOA went into effect, Iran earlier this year amassed enough low enriched uranium (LEU) to produce a single nuclear weapon. This key threshold significantly reduces its estimated breakout time—i.e., the time it would take to produce enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for one atomic bomb. The fact that the majority of Iran’s LEU stockpile is also now enriched up to 4.5 percent further reduces its breakout time by as much as 15 to 20 percent, according to the highly-respected Institute for Science and International Security. Based on the IAEA’s most recent report on the JCPOA, the Institute now calculates that in a credible worst-case scenario, Iran’s breakout time could be as low as 3.1 months and as high as 3.9 months. As Iran’s step-by-step breaches of the nuclear deal persist, the trajectory over the coming months is likely downward still toward even shorter timelines.
(Source: Science Magazine)
As a point of comparison, just before the JCPOA’s restrictions went into effect in January 2016, Iran’s breakout time was commonly assessed at around two months. Before an interim nuclear deal in November 2013 that neutralized Iran’s stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium, it had been closer to one month. With implementation of the JCPOA’s limits, the administration of President Barack Obama claimed that the timeline had been extended to over 12 months. For its part, the Institute for Science and International Security estimated that the breakout time under the JCPOA was actually closer to eight months–based on the reasonable assumption that in any breakout scenario Iran would not just bring back thousands of older, less efficient IR-1 centrifuges that had been put in storage, but also the 1,000 next-generation IR-2 centrifuges that were mothballed under the deal.
It’s important to note that breakout estimates do not include the additional time that Iran would need to convert weapons-grade HEU into an actual bomb, much less develop a reliable warhead that could be delivered on a ballistic missile. That said, there’s a high likelihood that this work would be conducted at difficult-to-detect secret sites, perhaps in parallel with a ramp up in Iran’s enrichment program rather than sequentially. Indeed, as reflected in the so-called nuclear archive that Israel secreted out of Iran in 2018, many relevant activities related to weapons work may have been going on for years–possibly even up to the present.
It’s in that context that the second IAEA report issued this month regarding Iran’s compliance with its safeguards obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is especially troubling. The Agency noted “with serious concern” that for four months, Iran has been denying inspectors access to two undeclared sites and has refused for almost a year to clarify questions “related to possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear activities.”
According to the Institute for Science and International Security, the IAEA was led to seek access to the two sites (both of which have been effectively razed) at least in part on the basis of environmental sampling it did at an open-air warehouse in Tehran in January 2019 that revealed the existence of manmade uranium particles. The warehouse had never been declared by Iran and was only revealed to the IAEA by Israel in the summer of 2018, another revelation of the nuclear archive. Though Iran rapidly destroyed the warehouse and attempted to sanitize the area, the uranium particles were found, raising the concern that Iran could be hiding undeclared nuclear material today. The fact that the two sites targeted for inspection are both suspected of having connections to the Amad program–Iran’s crash effort in the early 2000s to develop up to five nuclear weapons—dramatically raises the stakes.
The concerns are obvious. Where is the undeclared nuclear material today? What happened to the equipment that was present at these sites before they were razed? And do the activities related to nuclear weapons development that were taking place there in the past continue today at other secret locations? It should be clear that these are not purely issues of historical curiosity, but urgent matters of current concern, raising as they do the distinct possibility that Iran might presently be conducting activities related to nuclear weapons.
To sum up: on the one hand, in its declared nuclear program, while by no means racing toward a bomb, Iran is systematically reducing its breakout time; on the other hand, there are growing concerns that Iran may be concealing both undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities. Put them together, and it’s an especially troubling combination that inevitability raises the uncomfortable question: What happens if the situation continues to worsen?
The IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution on June 19, calling on Iran to provide prompt access to the two sites. If Iran’s obstinance continues, the IAEA board could find Iran in violation of its NPT obligations and refer its file to the United National Security Council for possible action. That would almost certainly strengthen the Trump administration’s contingency plan to “snapback” all Security Council sanctions unilaterally for Iran’s violations of the JCPOA—which, importantly, incorporates its pledge to adhere to the NPT’s Additional Protocol.
Of course, the hope is that significant increments of additional economic pressure will stay Iran’s nuclear advancement, if not convince it to at last change course, and take up Trump’s offer to negotiate a better deal. But given the reality that more than 19 months of devastating sanctions have so far failed to induce any positive changes in Iranian behavior, serious consideration needs to be given to the possibility—perhaps even the likelihood–that ratcheting up the economic pain even further will fare no better in convincing Iran to halt its nuclear escalation.
So what then? For Democrats and their likely nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, should they enter office next January the answer seems straightforward: Try to stabilize the deteriorating situation through a rapid return to the JCPOA, trading some form of sanctions relief for a reversal of Iran’s nuclear violations. That, of course, is anathema to the Trump administration, a complete repudiation of its historic decision to abandon Obama’s nuclear deal in the first place and a dagger through the heart of its maximum pressure campaign.
This invariably leads back to the possibility of a military strike to stop Iran’s nuclear advancement should it proceed apace. Two years ago, when Trump announced his withdrawal from the JCPOA and his intent to reimpose sanctions, he seemed to hint as much, warning that “If the regime continues its nuclear aspirations, it will have bigger problems than it has ever had before.” The next day, he amplified the threat: “I would advise Iran not to start their nuclear program. I would advise them very strongly. If they do, there will be very severe consequences.”
At the time, I wrote that “Surely, the president and his advisors understand that one likely consequence of killing the deal and reimposing sanctions is that Iran might begin expanding its nuclear program again.” After posing the question of what Trump would do if Iran called his bluff before sanctions have their intended effect, I concluded that “It goes without saying that absent a rock-solid commitment to move militarily against Iran’s nuclear program in short order should it prove necessary, the president’s decision to crater the Iran deal prematurely really would constitute not just a major gamble, but extreme diplomatic malpractice.”
Well, here we are. Iran had responded to Trump’s maximum pressure by expanding its nuclear program and significantly reducing its breakout time, bringing it much closer to the 2-month timeline that existed before the deal than to the 8 to 12-month one that existed at the time Trump left the JCPOA. But there’s no indication whatsoever, at least not yet, that the administration is starting to contemplate actions other than further sanctions to reign in Iran’s nuclear expansion. Given how incremental Iran’s violations have been to date, that’s likely to remain the case at least until the U.S. elections in four months. Barring any dramatic new breaches by Iran, Trump is probably safe waiting until then before taking up any possible military options. If he wins, he can deal with it in a second term. If he loses, it will be Biden’s problem.
It’s worth noting that Israel’s calculation could be different. Waiting until the U.S. elections pose real risks in terms of Israel’s own military option against the Iranian nuclear program. While not unthinkable in the event of a Biden victory and America’s return to the JCPOA, it would be infinitely more difficult in the face of strong opposition from a newly-elected president. By contrast, while clearly leery himself about getting the United States into another military conflict in the Middle East, Trump would likely be sympathetic to Israel taking matters into its own hands. In John Bolton’s recent book about his tenure as Trump’s national security advisor, he reports that in 2017, before he joined the administration, Trump urged him to “tell Bibi [Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister] that if he uses force [against Iran’s nuclear program], I will back him.”
In addition to assured U.S. support, an Israeli strike before the U.S. elections would also occur at a time of especially high Iranian vulnerability. Iran’s economy is already on its knees. It’s been further ravaged by one of the world’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19. Its population is deeply disgruntled and restless. It’s most elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Qods Force, has yet to regain its footing after the targeted killing of its longtime commander, Qassem Soleimani, in a U.S. drone strike. And its most powerful proxy is that Hezbollah is still licking its wounds after its costly involvement in Syria’s civil war and preoccupied with the catastrophic implosion of Lebanon’s economy, but possibly the entire state. While the attendant risks of any military action against the Iranian nuclear program will be formidable under any circumstances, from Israel’s standpoint, they may be far more manageable today in light of the unprecedented stresses that the Iranian regime is experiencing.
Netanyahu was widely mocked for his Iranian bomb cartoon at the UN in 2012, but as an act of deterrence, his stunt worked.
That said, between an exclusive reliance on additional sanctions and a dangerous military strike, there may still be room for coercive diplomacy to play an important role. Specifically, the United States, Israel, or preferably both could communicate to Iran a set of red lines regarding its current nuclear expansion that, if crossed, would dramatically increase the likelihood of a forceful response. They might include starting to enrich uranium to 20 percent again, ending or seriously curtailing the IAEA inspection regime, or abandoning its obligations under the NPT.
Notably, in a speech at the United Nations in 2012, Netanyahu famously held up a cartoon bomb, drew a red line (literally) at the point on the diagram when Iran would accumulate enough 20 percent uranium for one nuclear weapon, and made clear that Israel would act to stop Iran should it reach that point. While Netanyahu was widely mocked for the stunt, it’s well worth remembering that, afterward, Iran went out of its way to make sure its stockpile of 20 percent uranium never approached his redline. Deterrence worked.
The IAEA’s recent reports should serve as a wake up call. While the world’s attention has been focused elsewhere, the Iran nuclear clock has begun ticking again. Slowly, deliberately, a new crisis is brewing. Even as the Trump administration continues to hope that its current strategy of maximum economic pressure will work fast enough to avert it, the administration urgently needs to be developing an answer to the question: What if Plan A doesn’t work?
John Hannah, senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, served as national security advisor to former Vice President Dick Cheney.
Sunset of the Iran Arms Embargo: The Narrow Path to a Policy Compromise
Delinking the embargo from the nuclear deal could offer the best hope of reducing tensions within the P5+1 while also limiting Iran’s access to sophisticated weaponry.
A timeline of the various sunset clauses built into the JCPOA nuclear deal, the first of which is the lifting of the arms embargo this October. (Source: Brookings Institute).
The United Nations restriction on Iran buying and selling arms is due to expire in October 2020, making the first of the nuclear agreement’s sunsets imminent. This was a chief complaint of the deal’s critics when it was debated in 2015. Once the embargo ends, Iran would be free to purchase weapons listed on the UN register of conventional arms, as well as to export them, without requiring the prior approval of the Security Council as it does today.
The Trump administration has indicated its determination not to permit the embargo to expire and its intention to introduce a Security Council resolution extending it indefinitely. The administration has warned that if that resolution is not adopted, it is prepared to exercise the nuclear accord’s “snapback” provision, effectively erasing the deal from the books and restoring all of the UN sanctions that it relieved, the arms embargo included.
For critics and supporters of the agreement alike, this sets up a difficult choice. Many critics would be content to see the U.S. exercise snapback. However, this would likely spur Iran to ramp up its nuclear program to pre-agreement levels, and potentially trigger a wider crisis at the Security Council. Supporters of the nuclear agreement, for their part, must consider not merely whether lifting the embargo is worth that confrontation, but also whether it is appropriate to increase Iran’s access—and, by extension, that of its proxies—to sophisticated weapons in the current Middle East environment.
HISTORY OF THE EMBARGO, AND FUTURE PROSPECTS FOR IRANIAN PROLIFERATION
That the arms embargo is linked to the nuclear deal in the first place is something of a historical anomaly. The United States has sought to restrict the international sale of arms to Iran since 1979, through both executive action and congressional legislation, such as the 1992 Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act. This effort was finally internationalized in 2007 via UN Security Council Resolution 1747, adopted in response to Iran’s refusal to meet the council’s demand for a suspension of Iranian enrichment and reprocessing activities.
While the resolution was a vehicle for adopting the arms embargo, and Iran’s nuclear intransigence was the issue that led recalcitrant powers such as Russia and China to support it, the embargo was nevertheless not, in the minds of U.S. policymakers, a direct response to Iran’s nuclear activities. It was, rather, part of a broader campaign—in full swing in the mid-2000s under Treasury Department and National Security Council leadership—to isolate Iran diplomatically, financially, and militarily over its nuclear, missile, and regional activities and support for terrorism.
In the years since the embargo was imposed in 2007, including the five years since the nuclear deal was finalized in 2015, those concerns have not ebbed, as Iran’s national security policy has not materially changed. In 2019, for example, Iran mounted its most brazen provocation in years, using armed drones and cruise missiles to attack a Saudi oil complex.
Were the arms embargo to be lifted, Iran would be less likely to acquire conventional military capabilities it lacks—e.g., fighter jets, tanks—than to perfect and share the weaponry it already fields, such as armed unmanned aerial vehicles and cruise and ballistic missiles. This would likely take three forms—first, acquiring new, more advanced systems; second, seeking technology transfer to produce these systems indigenously, especially in the event sanctions are reimposed; and, third, transferring these technologies to regional proxies and partners such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia militias in Iraq, and the Houthis in Yemen, both to increase these actors’ firepower and to provide strategic depth for Iran. The third category would also entail transfer to paying customers elsewhere in the world.
The proliferation of sophisticated weapons to irresponsible nonstate actors is one of Tehran’s most destabilizing policies, and means that easing restrictions on Iran is tantamount to lifting the embargo on those groups as well.
While the Trump administration’s opposition to lifting the arms embargo will likely be seen in many quarters as yet another U.S. effort to undermine the nuclear agreement—or even simply an excuse to exercise snapback and unravel the deal before the November U.S. presidential election—this would be misguided. Including the arms embargo in the Security Council resolution that implemented the nuclear agreement was itself a conceptual error.
The deal required no regional restraint from Tehran, which meant that including the embargo’s sunset set up a choice, barring a change of heart by Iran or a subsequent deal on regional issues, between honoring the resolution’s terms and delivering a blow to regional security, and sustaining the embargo and jeopardizing the nuclear deal. The Trump administration currently faces this choice, but it would have been similarly vexing for the United States had Hillary Clinton prevailed in 2016, or indeed for any U.S. administration concerned about Iranian regional activities or the security of Middle East allies.
Russian and Chinese opposition looks set to make a confrontation in the UN Security Council the Iranian Arms Embargo all but inevitable.
The European states of the P5+1 (Britain, France, and Germany)—which in any event will remain bound by the EU arms embargo on Iran through at least 2023—have made clear that they share U.S. concerns about the imminent expiration of the embargo. Russia and China, the two non-European members of the P5+1, have stated unequivocally that they oppose the embargo’s extension. But the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China alike have all asserted that they oppose snapback, and are likely to contend that the United States lacks standing to exercise it, having withdrawn from the agreement and thus forsaken recourse under it.
While the EU-3 members are loath to see a council confrontation over snapback, however—perhaps fearing how Washington might respond if rebuffed by the UN—Russia and China may welcome the fight as a chance to pit the United States against its allies and undermine Washington in the world’s premier international institution. This sets up a conundrum for the Trump administration: snapback is its best leverage for securing an extension of the arms embargo, but that leverage is least effective against those it most needs to persuade.
In the mid-2000s, the United States sought to dissuade Russia from selling its S-300 air-defense system to Iran. The sale of the system would have been permissible under then-prevailing sanctions, which did not cover defensive weapons, but would have hindered any military strike on Iran.
The resolution was informal but effective—U.S. President George W. Bush reached a gentlemen’s agreement with Russian president Vladimir Putin not to transfer the system to Iran while nuclear diplomacy was ongoing. Repeating this diplomatic feat today, however, would be difficult—U.S. relations with Moscow and Beijing are more fraught than in previous decades, and resurging Great Power competition in the Middle East likely will push both states toward closer military ties with Tehran. In addition, such an understanding would not provide the legal basis for third-party states to interdict weapons shipments to Iran, or to prosecute those involved in their transshipment.
Extending the embargo thus will require a UN Security Council resolution, which will call for overcoming both Russian and Chinese opposition and the notion that the move amounts to an arbitrary amendment of the nuclear agreement. The extension may also spur a strong response from Iran, for which the end of the arms embargo is a prized political achievement of its nuclear diplomacy. While the order is a tall one, the following approach should be considered:
- Delink the arms embargo from the nuclear deal. Rather than merely extending the embargo, the council should delink it from the nuclear deal entirely, and place the matter back in its regional context. Important as it is for states to honor the agreements they sign, they cannot be expected to do so against their own interest or without regard for realities on the ground. And the current reality is stark—Iran has continued to engage in arms proliferation to groups such as Hezbollah, the Houthis, and Iraqi militias in defiance of multiple UN Security Council resolutions, all of which stand equally beside the nuclear deal and Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal and rolled back sanctions imposed by previous UN resolutions. And all those resolutions passed with the support of Moscow and Beijing. Lifting the arms embargo on Iran would not only signal disregard for them but would complicate their already meager enforcement—it is far easier to prevent the sale of weapons to Iran than to stop Tehran from spreading them onward. In precise terms, Iran currently faces no arms embargo; rather, Resolution 2231 states that Iran may buy and sell arms, subject to the Security Council’s case-by-case approval. A new resolution, rather than maintaining that system or otherwise barring Iran from exporting and importing arms, could stipulate the conditions under which it may do so—namely, through compliance with other relevant UN Security Council resolutions, such as 1701 (2006) and 2216 (2015). Because lifting the arms embargo is not part of the nuclear agreement itself but part of Resolution 2231, this would not be a unilateral change to any deal negotiated with Iran. Instead, it would be a change to one among the members of the council itself, which are free to alter resolutions based on the prevailing geopolitical environment and often do so.
- Recruit regional support. While Russia and China may welcome a showdown with the United States—especially if they perceive that Washington will not prioritize the Iran issue in its broader relations with Moscow and Beijing—they are less likely to relish increased tensions with Iran’s rivals in the Middle East. Washington should enlist Russia and China’s major regional economic partners—Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar in particular—to make clear that Moscow and Beijing will pay a price if they stand in the way of extending the arms embargo on Iran.
If the US Administration can enlist support for an embargo extension from Arab leaders that Russia and China see as regional economic partners, this may be one way to change the calculations on Iran in Moscow and Beijing.
- Shift the snapback threat. While the above approach may offer Russia and China a face-saving way of supporting the arms embargo’s extension, they may nevertheless balk, betting not only that a U.S. snapback bid would fail but that it would create a rift between the United States and EU-3 and prompt a deeper crisis at the Security Council that overshadows the Iran matter. While Moscow and Beijing would be reckless to invite that crisis, doing so would be consistent with their desire to weaken the U.S. role in the international order.
Neither the United States nor the EU-3 has an interest in inviting a crisis over Iran, especially if the beneficiaries are Russia and China. Yet this logic will lead the allies to different conclusions—Washington, to suggest that the EU-3 should simply drop its objections to the U.S. exercise of snapback or even trigger it themselves; and the EU-3, to prefer that Washington simply avoid snapback, arguing that reimposing UN sanctions will add little pressure to that already achieved through the reintroduction of U.S. sanctions, yet may drive Iran to escalate its nuclear activities further.
A compromise between these positions would be for the United States and EU-3 together to introduce a resolution suspending the nuclear agreement for a renewable period of negotiation, perhaps six months, with Washington maintaining its snapback threat as a backup should Moscow or Beijing veto and the EU-3 agreeing not to question the U.S. standing to take this action.
Michael Singh is the Lane-Swig Senior Fellow and managing director at The Washington Institute.
Analysis: Hezbollah Is Starting to Suffocate, but Escalation With Israel Could Divert Public Attention
The Shi’ite organization is working with the government to suppress critical voices, but Lebanon’s need for economic aid could turn things around
Lebanese army try to block supporters of the Lebanese Shi’ite groups Hezbollah and Amal as they gesture and chant slogans against anti-government demonstrators, in Beirut, June 6, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
Lebanese President Michel Aoun convened an extraordinary meeting on Thursday to discuss the country’s worsening crisis, and above all, to achieve what he terms “national agreement” – a rare commodity in Lebanese politics. Invitees include former prime ministers and presidents, as well as the members of the serving cabinet under Prime Minister Hassan Diab, to consult with them on issues currently on the country’s agenda.
As expected, most of them refused his invitation as they are all too familiar with these meetings, which produce nothing but tension and mutual anger. On top of that, none of them wants to bear collective responsibility for the government’s failures. The very fact that the meeting is being held at all – “in the presence of whoever will come,” as the presidential announcement phrased it – is testimony to a loss of direction in the face of the deadlock and the severe economic crisis in which Lebanon is mired.
The crisis morphed into a security threat in recent weeks, with demonstrations and violent clashes between protesters and security forces erupting in Beirut and Tripoli. Hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, and the authorities fear that this is only the start of a wave of dissent. The government has no instant solutions and lacks sufficiently deep pockets. To offset its outlays somewhat, the government decided to cancel the subsidies for electricity and fuel oil. Yet, at the same time, basic commodities cost 55 percent more than they did a year ago, unemployment stands at 40 percent and no new funding sources have been found.
In addition, the banks and the money changers have limited the amount of dollars that can be withdrawn. The Syndicate of Money Changers as well as banks issued detailed guidelines on the subject earlier this week. For example, the salary ceiling for a foreign worker will be $300 a month, the maximum price of a plane ticket to go abroad will be $1,000, and the allocation for studies overseas will be $2,500 plus another $1,000 to cover the student’s rental costs.
The Central Bank announced that it would pump more dollars to the banks, and the government promised that low income earners will not suffer from the subsidies cuts. But these measures are not enough to allay the fears of depositors, who for many months have not been able to withdraw their full deposits in the form of dollars.
The Lebanese intelligence community, which was mobilized to combat money smuggling abroad, published this week a phone number that people can call to report money changers who are setting exorbitant exchange rates for the dollar. However, that hotline is unlikely to be used. Lebanese citizens are willing to pay any price in order to be in possession of dollars, whose exchange rate has soared to almost 7,000 Lebanese pounds, compared to the official rate of 1,507 pounds – set back in the 1990s.
The situation was compounded this month by new sanctions that the United States imposed on Syria within the framework of what’s known as the “Caesar Act,” which aims to punish every company, country or private individual who does business with President Bashar Assad’s regime. That is liable to have far-reaching consequences for the Lebanese banks and for the scale of the trade, already dwindling, between Syria and Lebanon. Concurrently, the government, together with Hezbollah, is waging a grim struggle against its critics and adversaries, and is investing considerable efforts to suppress the protest movements.
Last week, social activist Kinda al-Khatib was charged with visiting Israel and maintaining ties with Israeli activists, but she denies having gone on to Israel after visiting Jordan. The real reason for her detention is apparently her acerbic tweets against the government and Hezbollah. In April, she wrote that even though the bodies of Israeli soldiers are returned from Syria, Lebanese citizens who are incarcerated in Syria have yet to be returned, and “that is an affront to everyone who calls for resistance against Israel and defends Assad.”
A youth walks past a burnt down branch of a Lebanese bank after it was set on fire and vandalized by protesters earlier, in al-Nour Square in Tripoli, June 12, 2020.Credit: AFP
Another target of harassment is the senior Shi’ite religious sage Ali al-Amin, against whom a complaint was filed this week because of “his meetings with a Jewish rabbi during an interfaith dialogue held in Bahrain.” Al-Amin denies having met with or spoken to a rabbi at the December 2019 conference. However, his denial was of no avail to him: the Supreme Islamic Shi’ite Council in Lebanon stripped him of his authority to issue religious rulings, and he is now liable to be tried for being in contact with the enemy, an offense that carries the death penalty or life imprisonment.
Like al-Khatib, al-Amin is a fierce opponent of Hezbollah and of its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, and for years preached against Iran’s involvement in Lebanon. The social networks and the opposition media in Lebanon are up in arms over the two episodes. They see the cases as a Hezbollah front against its rivals and as a threat to the protest movements, which are accusing Hezbollah of responsibility for Lebanon’s grim situation.
“Hezbollah wants to silence its foes and prepare for war with the outside,” is the title of an article by Mounir al-Rabih on the opposition website Al-Modon. According to Rabih, Hezbollah is issuing threats against its domestic rivals, even in the case of a senior Shi’ite cleric, in order “to prepare the country for the worst to come, in the light of the assessments that anticipate a shortage of basic commodities in the months ahead.” Hezbollah, the analyst added, “will not be able to remain silent in the face of that development, because it means prolonged suffocation. That situation will require the organization to turn to the option of military escalation alongside Iranian escalation.”
That gloomy forecast is not yet borne out on the ground, but it reflects a widespread view that echoes the calls heard in the demonstrations against Iran and Hezbollah. As a member of the Diab government, Hezbollah cannot shake off responsibility for the struggle against the coronavirus either, as the health minister belongs to the organization.
A demonstrator raises a Lebanese flag while standing between soldiers, during a protest near the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon June 25, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Aziz Taher
Some commentators in Lebanon believe that Hezbollah might exploit the Israeli attacks in Syria against Iranian or pro-Iranian targets to threaten war against “the Israeli aggression” and thus to mobilize public support, or at least to curb the efforts of its opponents to get Hezbollah to disarm.
As such, Hezbollah is confronting Lebanon’s decision makers with a serious dilemma: to obey the demands of the United States in order to receive financial aid, including a $5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund; or to back Hezbollah in order to avert a war which Lebanon cannot afford either economically or militarily. This is not a new dilemma – Hezbollah’s equation of force, amid the threat of “activating” Israel to further its cause, has been on the cards for Lebanon’s governments for decades.
Now, though, the political and economic elite faces an existential danger from the public, which cannot, and is no longer willing to, accept the absence of an economic horizon. At the same time, the international circumstances have created a conjunction of interests between Israel, Russia and the United States – all of which want to expel Iran from Syria – and European pressure on Lebanon to remove Hezbollah from the government. Germany, for example, has placed Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations.
These domestic and external developments might force the government and President Aoun to force Hezbollah’s hand in order to save the country from total bankruptcy. This does not mean that there is at present any political or military force that can get Hezbollah to disarm. But if the government and public are able to make it clear to the organization that the threat of the use of force will be met by a broad public and perhaps also governmental response, Hezbollah might begin to grasp the limits of its power.