Iran wins pyrrhic victory in cold war with Saudi Arabia

VISITORS IN BEIRUT last year I noticed a strange diptych on the drive from the airport. Head north along Imam Khomeini Avenue and one of them passed billboards to Qassem Suleimani, an Iranian general assassinated by America in January 2020. Yet a kilometer away , his gaunt face gave way to a jovial image of Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers.

General Suleimani was a frequent visitor to the city. He helped make Hezbollah, a Shiite militia and political party, the most powerful actor in Lebanon, with a significant base of popular support and the strength to silence critics. But he now wields his influence in a country plunged into what the World Bank says could be one of the three worst financial crises since the 1850s. The Lebanese pound, once pegged to the dollar, has lost more than 90% of its value in two years, and greenbacks have become scarce. Hence these images of Franklin: a local money transfer company wanting to reassure customers that they have $ 100 bills left. The billboards are a small illustration of Hezbollah’s success and failure – a story repeated elsewhere in the region. Iranian-backed groups wield great power from Baghdad to Beirut. Yet the “axis of resistance” supports sclerotic regimes that control but cannot govern.

For decades, observers have seen the Middle East through the prism of a Saudi-Iranian cold war, a conflict that dates from the Iranian Islamic revolution in 1979. Ayatollahs in Tehran hoped, and monarchs of the Arabian Peninsula feared that the revolutionary wave would cross the Gulf. Saddam Hussein presented his eight-year war on Iran in the 1980s as an effort to protect Arabs from Iranian hegemony. The Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have lent more than $ 37 billion to his war effort.

This binary vision of a proxy war has had its day, because the Saudis have lost. They have failed to build a deep well of support in other Arab countries, settling for ineffective checkbook diplomacy with fickle politicians and warlords. Iran is arguably the most powerful foreign actor in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. (Ironically, it owes it to its nemesis America, which swept Saddam out in 2003, turning Iraq from a hostile neighbor into fertile ground for Iranian influence.) The Saudis still lead rearguard action in the Yemen, but their six-year war against the Houthis, a Shiite group, mostly benefited Iran. Gulf diplomats curtly describe several Arab states as “outside the Arab fold.”

Yet Iran’s victory is hollow. The axis of resistance is that of misery. Life in Syria and Lebanon is defined by queues for gasoline, long blackouts and growing hunger. Iraqis suffocate for another summer of widespread power cuts, with temperatures reaching 52 ° C (126 ° F). Yemen has experienced episodes of famine and cholera. Iran and its allies are not entirely responsible for these problems. Lebanon’s bankruptcy stems from decades of political mismanagement. But the Iranians do not even pretend to offer solutions. Instead, they have become the gatekeepers of failing regimes. In Syria, Iran has helped Bashar al-Assad brutalize his opposition and maintain his grip on power. More recently, Hezbollah has helped quell a protest movement in Lebanon, and Iranian-backed militias in Iraq have killed protesters.

When Hezbollah was founded in the 1980s, it had something to resist: the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. Many Lebanese, regardless of sect or political orientation, saw this as a legitimate fight. The group’s popularity soared after the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, and remained high even after the war with Israel in 2006, which began with the capture of two Israeli soldiers. While devastating for Lebanon – even Hezbollah leaders later admitted it was a mistake – it ended in a draw, and for Hezbollah survival was a victory. Arabs of all stripes applauded him for bleeding Israel, a feat no Arab state had achieved for decades.

But Hezbollah has since mainly turned its weapons against other Arabs. In 2008, its militants briefly seized control of west Beirut, a time that broadened the definition of “resistance.” The Syrian civil war brought more contradictions. To support its allies, Mr. Assad and Iran, Hezbollah had to fight the Syrian rebels. This time he claimed to resist the takfiris, or Sunni extremists, and protecting Shiite shrines in Damascus. Some Lebanese Christians, angered by the more radical elements of the Syrian opposition, applauded. But Hezbollah’s popularity in the Arab world has plummeted.

Redefining resistance

Today Hezbollah and its allies speak of a “resistance economy” in Lebanon – another change. In areas where the group reigns, stores offer Syrian and Iranian products at lower prices than elsewhere. In April, Hezbollah trumpeted the Sajjad Card, a ration card system named after a Shiite imam that offers discounts to participants based on their income. But their supporters are still not spared the humiliations that define life in Lebanon. The shelves of pharmacies are empty: expatriates visiting for the summer fill their cases with drugs, not just prescription drugs but even basic products like paracetamol which are not available in the country. Gas stations, if they are not closed, have queues of several hours that meander for blocks.

The story is similar elsewhere in Iran’s sphere of influence. The World Food Program estimates that 12.4 million Syrians do not have enough to eat, or nearly 60% of the population, and twice as many as in 2018. The price of a basket of staple foods has increased by almost 200% last year. Subsidized bread, the cheapest source of calories, is of lower quality, and Syrians often queue for hours to get it. Meanwhile, Iraq, the world’s sixth-largest oil producer, generates barely half of the 30 gigawatts of electricity its citizens need during scorching summers. Billions of dollars spent on post-war reconstruction have disappeared, embezzled by corrupt officials.

To hear Hassan Nasrallah say it, such woes are largely the result of a Western “siege,” a term he has used in his speeches for the past year. Even critics of the Hezbollah leader would admit he is a charismatic orator with a flair for the dramatic. Not only that: it offers more than empty words. In a televised speech during the 2006 war, Mr. Nasrallah told his viewers to look out to sea. Moments later, a missile struck an Israeli destroyer off the coast, damaging the ship and killing four sailors.

A decade and a half later, however, Mr. Nasrallah has become what he once hated. He has given dozens of speeches since Lebanon’s plunge into crisis, many devoted to supporting the existing order. Initially, he supported the anti-government protests in 2019, but quickly changed his mind. In his subsequent assessment, protesters – hundreds of thousands, from all walks of life – had been infiltrated by a fifth column on the payrolls of foreign embassies. As for the economic crisis, he offers a simple solution: bypass the Western “siege” and “look east”, to Asian powers like China, which stand ready to pour billions into Arab economies despite the alleged howls. indignation of Americans.

Much of it is fantasy. Sanctions against Lebanon are limited to businesses and individuals, many of whom are affiliated with Hezbollah. There is no general ban on trade. And America has not kept China away from the Middle East. Since 2005, it has invested $ 137 billion in Egypt, Jordan and the six Gulf states, according to a count from the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank. He also signed deals worth $ 13 billion with neighboring Israel. They are all close American partners, countries that would be sensitive to America’s criticism of their relationship with China. The real obstacle to Chinese investment in Lebanon is Lebanon itself: uncontrolled corruption, precarious infrastructure.

Iraq struggles to attract non-oil foreign investment for similar reasons. Sanctions could be a bigger problem in Syria, where the United States has banned a series of business transactions with the regime. Even there, however, Mr. Assad acknowledges that his biggest economic problem is Lebanon’s financial crisis, which has wiped out tens of billions of dollars in Syrian capital hidden in Lebanese banks. “The sanctions did not prevent us from securing our basic needs,” he said in a speech in July.

Hezbollah remains Israel’s biggest Arab enemy. The Tel Aviv generals admit that another war with the group would be painful. Aside from a few brief border skirmishes, however, he hasn’t fought Israel in 15 years and can now hardly afford it. A bankrupt country still reeling from the self-imposed ruin of its capital is unable to sustain a war.

Likewise, the militias that fought America after 2003 claimed to be fighting a foreign occupier. But the meager American presence in Iraq is there at the behest of an elected government, anxious to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State. In Syria, Iran and its partners led a counter-revolution to protect a hereditary dictator whose regime was not an example of resistance: the Assads, father and son, has kept the border with Israel silent since 1973, and the youngest was negotiating a peace deal with the Israelis until 2010.

“Resistance” has thus given way to self-preservation. While impoverished and ideologically incoherent, Iran’s allies are also well armed. This was enough to preserve their grip on power. Yet they have not proven to be more effective than the regimes they once sought to overthrow – a problem which, ironically, also plagues their ideological opposites.

Full content of this special report
The Arab world: identity crisis
The axis of resistance: Pyrrhic victory for Iran*
Islamism and its discontents: no solution
Abraham’s agreements with Israel: a farewell to arms
Regional institutions: Talking Heads
The Egypt of Sissi: the new Nasserism
The future: staying at home

This article appeared in the Special Feature section of the print edition under the title “Pyrrhic Victory”

About Harold Hartman

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