Regional and international actors are accumulating cards to engage in a new Middle Eastern power game.
Republicans in Congress have just accused the Biden administration of withholding a report on Hezbollah’s financial empire. The report, which is to be prepared by the State and Defense Departments, is a requirement of the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act of 2018.
This report is critical to Republicans, according to a story in the conservative Washington Free Beacon, “as the Biden administration considers lifting economic sanctions on Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon as the country grapples with a massive cash crunch.” Rep. Pat Fallon, a Texas Republican, noted, “Additionally, the possibility that this administration will bailout and lift sanctions on Lebanon is a play straight out of the Neville Chamberlain foreign policy playbook. Hezbollah alone is responsible for Lebanon’s economic ruin.”
Fallon’s remarks raised interesting questions, because there is no sign that the United States has really sanctioned Lebanon. It has certainly imposed sanctions on Lebanese politicians and Hezbollah members and associates, but there are no indications, for instance, that Washington will block an International Monetary Fund bailout of the country. In fact, the Biden administration recently sought to assist the Lebanese Army, while U.S. members of Congress were in Beirut in September to examine ways of assisting the country. One delegation member, Richard Blumenthal, even stated, “I wouldn’t discount or dismiss the idea of a mini Marshall Plan for Lebanon because our security interests depend on it…”
This is hardly the language one uses for countries under sanction. More significantly, congressional sources told the Washington Free Beacon that the administration’s refusal to release the State and Defense Department report is receiving “increased congressional scrutiny amid separate reports the Biden administration is prepared to waive economic sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria to facilitate an energy deal with Lebanon.” The deal in question involves sending Egyptian natural gas, via pipeline, through Jordan and Syria to supply Lebanon’s Deir Ammar power station near Tripoli. Lebanon has been facing debilitating power cuts amid money and fuel shortages, and the plan would help produce energy for an economy at a standstill.
However, for the plan to go ahead, the United States would need to issue waivers not only to Lebanon but also to Jordan, so that they would not face sanctions under the Caesar Act. This is U.S. legislation passed to punish the Syrian regime for crimes against its population. It was, therefore, revealing that the gas plan was announced by the U.S. ambassador in Beirut, Dorothy Shea, in August. However, an initial request to allow it came from Jordan’s King Abdullah when he visited Washington in July. The gas plan was also mentioned by Lebanese politician Saad al-Hariri after he met with Egyptian officials in Cairo on July 16. This indicated that Egypt and Jordan were on the same wavelength over Lebanon, and both apparently managed to persuade the Biden administration to support their approach.
While the headlines are that the plan would supply a suffering Lebanon with gas, the real story is that Egypt and Jordan are looking for ways to reintegrate Syria into the Arab fold, using Lebanon as a hook to do so. It seems increasingly apparent that what some in Washington are portraying as a Biden administration effort to lean in the direction of the Assad regime and Iran, may actually be more significant: an effort by Arab states to use openings toward Syria and Lebanon to challenge Iran’s sway in both countries and turn them into places where the Arabs can bargain with Tehran.
If this is correct, it would suggest a sea change in Arab attitudes toward the Islamic Republic. Until recently, the hope of many Arab states was that the United States, and even Israel, would contain Iranian expansionism in the region. This policy of containing Iran has long been a part of the U.S. approach, to the extent that the Clinton administration proposed what it called “dual containment” of both Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq three decades ago.
The normalization agreements between Gulf states and Israel last year seemed to be another step in that direction. They were a way of creating a counterweight to Iran after the United States under Donald Trump did nothing to respond to Iranian attacks against Saudi or Emirati ships in May 2019, and after Trump was visibly reluctant to intervene on behalf of his Saudi allies following Iranian drone attacks against Aramco plants in Abqaiq and Khurais in September 2019.
However, U.S. containment has been a failure. Despite decades of sanctions, Iran’s reach in the Middle East has expanded. Tehran offers no model worth emulating, but it has exploited the dysfunctional and fragmented nature of several Arab countries to its benefit. Apparently realizing this, and realizing further that Israel, without U.S. backing, will think twice about launching a war against Iran that may destabilize the region, some Arab states have shifted tactics. Their policies in Syria and Lebanon suggest that they have decided to engage with two countries over which Iran has significant influence—unlike Saudi Arabia, which for years has completely cut Lebanon and its Lebanese allies off, viewing the country as a lost cause.
The Saudi approach is very much a case of political opportunity cost. Whereas the Iranians leveraged their ties with Ansar Allah in Yemen to draw the Saudis into a quagmire, the Saudis have all but surrendered their Lebanese cards—not least the presence of a Sunni community at last as large as Lebanon’s Shia community, and one that is in search of a regional sponsor to push back against Hezbollah. That said, what the Saudis don’t seem to quite appreciate is that many Sunnis are unwilling to provoke a new civil war in pursuit of that goal.
The trend elsewhere in the Arab world showns a more imaginative direction. Egypt’s and Jordan’s behavior in Lebanon, like that of the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, seems to indicate that if Sunni-majority states can mobilize their alliances and sympathizers around the Middle East, they have a better chance of forcing Iran to consider Arab state interests than a reliance on U.S. or Israeli arms. What we have here is a return to politics. Given that many countries where Iran plays a dominant role—Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq—have either Sunni majorities or significant minorities hostile to Iran, creating opportunities to oblige Iran to compromise makes sense.
In a way we’re going back to the Middle East of the 1950s, when countries throughout the region were divided internally according to the political sympathies of segments of their populations—favoring Nasserism, Baathism, communism, the Hashemites, or the West. Today, the region has opened up to contending regional and international actors—Iran, Turkey, Israel, Russia, France—even as the United States retains influence, so the possibilities available in balancing off other actors cannot be ignored.
In looking the other way on the Egyptian gas deal with Lebanon, the Biden administration appears to have embraced this logic. A self-generating regional balance of power following a U.S. military withdrawal was the aim of the Obama administration, one with which Joe Biden may agree today. It was, after all, Barack Obama who told Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, “The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians, which has helped to feed the proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen, requires us to say to our friends, as well as the Iranians, that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.”
This message is finding an echo in the Arab world. In the absence of a United States acting as a Middle Eastern regulator, Arab states are accumulating cards to play power games of their own at the regional level.
The debate in Washington remains insular, focused on how an administration in office acts and what this means domestically, but in the Middle East the regimes are imposing a new playbook. They’re preparing for a region that has pivoted away from America.