By: Alejo Vidal-Quadras
Late last month, French President Emmanuel Macron declared that he was “ashamed of the Lebanese political leaders” who failed to form a new government following mass resignations in the wake of the blast at a Beirut port that killed nearly 200 people. Although his commentary was directed at the entirety of the Lebanese political establishment, his harshest criticisms were reserved for Hezbollah, which has obstructed negotiations by demanding that it retain control of the Finance Ministry and personally select Shiite ministers in accordance with the country’s sectarian power-sharing arrangement.
Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun has suggested abolishing those quotas in order to prevent the country from “going to hell” in absence of a functional government. But such a suggestion cannot expect to gain any traction in the face of Hezbollah’s outsized influence, which has been amplified for decades through financing and militant training by the Iranian regime. That situation is not being helped by the apparent fact that France and other Western powers that are following Macron’s lead are unwilling to take meaningful steps to curtail that influence.
Macron previously floated the idea of imposing sanctions if a stable government failed to materialize by a September 15 deadline. But in the three weeks since that deadline lapsed, no concrete plans have materialized for holding Beirut accountable, much less punishing Hezbollah for its particular contribution to the chaos and uncertainty. In fact, the French president even went so far as to walk back his previous comments, reserving the possibility of sanctions at some later date while saying “they do not seem to me the best tool at this stage.”
It’s not clear what this determination was based on. Incentives and political guidance have had little impact on this current crisis or on any other, so by now it should be clear that a more assertive solution is needed. And to those familiar with Hezbollah’s Iranian handlers, this comes as no surprise since the Iranian regime has never given any indication of understanding anything other than the language of strength.
Among the regime’s escalations were new efforts to expand the network of Iranian terrorist proxies throughout the region. Hezbollah has long been recognized as a model for those proxies. And the growth of influence by these groups has helped to prolong civil wars in Syria and Yemen while contributing to the persistence of instability in Iraq.
The current situation in Lebanon and Iraq looks very similar. Both have been rocked by months-long nationwide uprisings against the national government, with millions of protesters specifically taking aim at Iran’s excessive influence over domestic affairs. In both instances, the Iranian regime was quick to push back, using not only local proxies but also agents of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to crack down on unrest just as the Iranian regime has done among its own people.
Popular protest and Iran-backed repression has contributed to something of a stalemate in each country. But by all accounts, Iraq’s stalemate is much closer to being broken. There, the US is taking an assertive approach to countering Iran’s destructive influence.
Admittedly, there is a long way to go before this objective is fully accomplished and a longer way until Iranian influence in Iraq has ended. After all, Iraq’s Foreign Minister recently traveled to Iran and promised to pursue the further expansion in trade and security ties between the two countries. Other Iraqi officials are sure to go along with that plan since Tehran’s local proxies have acquired a substantial presence in government. But even though Kadhimi now sees too much political risk in confronting a pro-Iran faction, the fact remains that he took office with the stated goal of curtailing Iranian influence.
President Macron is right to be ashamed of Lebanon’s leadership, but he should also be ashamed of himself if he is unwilling to take the sorts of actions that are necessary to prevent Iran from financing and arming groups with a long history of destabilizing the region. Much of that damage could be undone simply by contributing to the economic and diplomatic isolation of individuals with ties to Hezbollah and even more could be accomplished if France and the entire European Union adopted the US strategy of maximum pressure on Iran itself.
In putting off the idea of economic sanctions for another day, Macron specifically stated that they should be adopted in coordination with other countries. However, before such coordination can be realized, one country must assume leadership by signaling a willingness to adopt more assertive measures than mere verbal condemnation and diplomatic urging. The US effectively took on that role more than two years ago, but it has been waiting for the rest of the Western world to recognize the urgency of the moment and to begin contributing to the existing push-back against Iranian regional influence.
The American and French positions are not so different when it comes to multilateral coordination. It is just that the US has been willing to go it alone as needed, while waiting for other major powers to follow suit. Nevertheless, American officials have repeatedly urged their European allies to show a willingness to put the 2015 nuclear deal at risk for the sake of larger objectives.
Those objectives reach far beyond the Iranian nuclear program, and beyond the regime itself. They concern the prospective stability of the Iraqi government and the very existence of a fully-constituted government in Lebanon. In fact, they could determine the prospects for stability across the entire Middle East. After all, it has often been observed that there has hardly been a crisis in the region over the past 30 years that did not have the fingerprints of the Iranian regime all over it.
Alejo Vidal-Quadras, a professor of atomic and nuclear physics, was vice-president of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014. He is President of the International Committee In Search of Justice (ISJ)