Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hezbollah's opponents divided over Iran deal

[Originally posted at NOW]

Despite March 14 officially welcoming US-Iran agreement, several MPs expressed reservations to NOW, though no broader strategic response is apparent.

When Iran reached a landmark deal with six major world powers this weekend to obtain partial relief from economic sanctions in exchange for temporarily freezing its controversial uranium enrichment program, the Islamic Republic’s allies in Lebanon’s March 8 coalition were quick to declare a victory.

“This is a victory for […] the resistance of Iran in the face of international pressure for more than 10 years,” sources close to the Tehran-backed Hezbollah told a local newspaper Monday. “Iran has managed to extract an international concession that it has the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes.”

At the same time, March 14, the longstanding rival of the Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc, also claimed the outcome as a success on the grounds that it imposes new constraints on Tehran’s activities. The former’s General Secretariat Coordinator Fares Soueid said via Twitter that “[t]he ‘resistance’ has given in to the rules of the new international order, and this is a great achievement for all of us.”

However, conversations NOW had with members of various March 14-affiliated parties suggest a more complicated, indeed uneasy reaction; with many doubtful that Iran would amend what they see as its disagreeable policies in Syria, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

“I’m a little worried,” admitted MP Bassem al-Shab of the Future Movement. “What worries me is that this move has not been linked to a behavioral change in Iran. It is assumed that this goodwill will translate into an evolution in the policy of Iran, but what if it does not? What if Iran has more resources to pursue the same old policies? Frankly, we haven’t heard anything from the [Obama] administration, nor from the Secretary of State, nor from the European Union, to say that this deal will take into consideration Iran’s posture in the Middle East.”

“The main concern in the Arab region and in Lebanon is that [the agreement] gives Iran a kind of relief regarding normalization with the international community while it is still interfering in an aggressive and unacceptable manner in Syria, and more subtly in Lebanon, through Hezbollah,” said Antoine Haddad, secretary-general of the Democratic Renewal (Tajaddod) Movement. Tajaddod is not formally part of the March 14 alliance, although Haddad told NOW it was “sympathetic with their overall objectives.”

Hardliners within the Saudi Arabia-backed Future Movement were even more skeptical of the deal’s merits, arguing that the international community was being deceived by a disingenuous Tehran.

“I am almost certain that Iran will not give up on its nuclear program,” said MP Khaled al-Daher. “The nuclear program of Iran represents its ambition of widening its power in the region. Iran’s attempts to expand and dominate in the Arab region are clear. They are part of Iran’s [ideology].”

Other parties, while also striking a cautious note, said it was too soon at this stage to form an opinion either way on the matter.

“We are waiting for tangible outcomes of this deal because there’s an immense difference between talks and walks,” read a statement sent to NOW by the Lebanese Forces, March 14’s leading Christian component.

Similarly, the Kataeb’s Central Committee Coordinator Sami Gemayel told NOW last week that his party would oppose the deal if it turns out to “contravene Lebanon’s interest and hand the country over to Iran.”

Despite his reservations about the agreement, Shab told NOW that it was unlikely to have much of a material effect on Lebanon, and thus he did not foresee any significant strategic response from the Future Movement. Indeed, there was no indication from anyone in March 14 with whom NOW spoke that the deal would affect their broader political calculations.

“I don’t think it will change anything on the ground,” said Shab. “We’ve long seen an American and Western disengagement [from Lebanon]. It’s not like there was this massive support that’s going to be withdrawn.”

Haddad, however, took a somewhat more upbeat stance, arguing that the deal could be turned against March 8 if handled properly by the latter’s rivals.

“The very spirit and logic of this agreement is that Iran won’t deal anymore with the United States or the West as a ‘Great Satan.’ I think that Lebanese, Syrians, and other Arabs need to deal in a realistic manner and try to […] take advantage of this new climate in which Iran has to deal more responsibly and become more accountable to international law.”

“It’s a matter of concern, but at the same time, it’s a test for Iran.”

Luna Safwan contributed reporting.

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