Iranian-Saudi Tensions Play Out in Beirut, Tripoli


[ in-depth ] Between downtown Beirut and Corniche al-Mazraa is a densely populated area where Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze live cheek by jowl. Walk around the quarters of Karakul Druze, Basta, and Moussaitbe during a speech by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s general secretary, and you hear it on the television in two or three shops, and then not from the next two or three.
The “Nasrallah speech” test shows how small the clusters of Shia and Sunni can get. Indeed, many of the apartment blocks rising high from the busy streets have Shia, Sunni, and Druze residents. This is in stark contrast to the demarcating “green line” between mainly Christian east Beirut and mainly Muslim west Beirut.

And yet this is, potentially at least, a surrogate front line between Iran and Saudi Arabia — a sectarian fault line where danger is being exacerbated by conflict in Syria between a mainly Sunni opposition and a regime led by Allawis, a sect derived from Shiism and allied to Tehran. It seems a sorry outcome after the Arab Spring raised the cry of equal citizenship and democracy around the region.

Hanna Ziadeh, the Palestinian-Lebanese author of Sectarianism and Intercommunal Nation-Building in Lebanon, has long studied Lebanon’s labyrinthine politics and social make-up. “The depressing aspect is that the Arab Spring is increasingly becoming a regional supra-national (between states) and intra-national (within states) war between Sunnis led by Saudi Arabia and Shiites led by Iran,” he says. “The sectarian tensions in Lebanon are palpable; one can touch the sectarian hatred just as one could in 1975 [when it was]between Christians and Muslims.”

Raw nerves: Christians, Salafis, and Hezbollah

Nerves have been raw in Beirut’s mixed Sunni-Shia areas since the events of 2008, when Hezbollah asserted its military presence after the government, then led by the Sunni Mustaqbal (Future) movement, challenged both its telecommunications system and security role around Beirut’s airport.

Lebanon has been largely isolated from the Arab Spring by its unique sectarian political structures. The Cedar Revolution of 2005 aimed at ending Syria’s military presence rather than reforming Lebanon’s political system, as suggested by the fact that it was called the intifadat al-istiqlal (independence uprising) in Arabic rather than the “color” revolution term apparently coined by the U.S. State Department.

Given the links of language, politics, trade, and families, Lebanon is unlikely to remain isolated from escalating sectarian tension in Syria, where violence in the past year has claimed 8,000 lives according to the United Nations.

Many Lebanese Sunnis identify with a Syrian opposition facing a regime dominated by the Allawi-led Baath party, and many in Lebanon’s opposition March 14 grouping, headed by the Saudi-aligned Future movement led by Saad Hariri, have expressed strong sympathy with the rebels in Syria, amid allegations they have supplied arms or channeled them from Arab governments or sympathizers in the Persian Gulf.

This left Hezbollah, which has ministers in the government led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, first to defend the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and more recently to back calls from the Arab League and United Nations secretariat for “dialogue” between Assad and the rebels.

Lebanon’s Christians are divided. Some vote for the Free Patriotic Movement led by 77-year-old former army commander Michel Aoun and allied with Hezbollah; others vote for groups, like Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Force, that are allied with Mustaqbal.

The Christians are also wary. A majority when Lebanon was created in the 1920s, they are now a minority, but nothing like as small or beleaguered a minority as Christians are elsewhere in the Middle East. Earlier this month, Beshara al-Rai, patriarch of the Maronites, Lebanon’s largest Christian sect, said that while Syria needed reforms, its regime stood out in the Arab world “in not saying it is Islamic.” Patriarch Rai questioned an Arab Spring that with “violence, war, destruction, and killing” was “turning to winter” and reminded those who spoke of “Iraq and democracy” that a million of the country’s 1.5 million Christians had left the country.

Amid its sectarian tensions, the saving grace for Lebanon, says Ziadeh, is that the bitter experience of the wars there between 1975 and 1990 has made many political leaders cautious: “There are elites who can still remember how hard it was to really control and use a sectarian conflict, not to say to stop it.”

Hence the “neutrality” on Syria emphasized by President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Nijab Mikati. “The lesson of Lebanese noninterference [in Syria]is that they should not add fuel to the fire as long as they are unable to put it out,” Suleiman recently told the An-Nahar daily.

The main flashpoint so far is Tripoli, the country’s second biggest city, where there have been clashes between Sunnis and a small Allawi population, with the former allegedly establishing bases for the opposition Free Syria Army. Black market prices for weapons around the northern city have risen sharply.

The clearest support for rebellion in Syria has come from overtly anti-Shia, militant Salafi groups that have been gaining strength in Lebanon for many years. Based originally in Palestinian camps, especially Ain el-Helweh in Sidon, they have been hardened by battle experience in Iraq and have expanded operations, especially in Tripoli.

Mikati recently confirmed that the authorities had arrested a group within the army plotting to attack military bases; the Lebanese media reported that the militants were part of the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al-Qaeda affiliate. Ahmad Moussalli, professor of political science and Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut, argues this may be only the beginning of the story. “It would be surprising not to uncover more al-Qaeda-affiliated Salafi terrorist cells,” he says.

“Keep in mind that the Salafis do not recognize the legitimacy of the Lebanese state and its security and military personnel. Now, these groups are emboldened by the opposition in Syria, given that the opposition is largely composed of Islamic forces supported by Salafi Wahhabi states, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as other Islamic and Western states. The Salafi condition is going to be a major problem that the Lebanese government has to face before the north of Lebanon turns into a hotbed for al-Qaeda and other Salafists under the pretext of fighting the Syrian regime.”

Professor Moussalli insists that a change of regime in Damascus, especially after a long conflict, would embolden militant Sunnis in their belief that Hezbollah could be weakened. “They might well have the impression that Hezbollah could be cornered and disarmed, and so engage Hezbollah in a civil war,” he says. “This definitely could be destructive to Lebanon and to the possibility of a peaceful coexistence between its sects.”

Jihad in Iraq

Given the level of tension between Sunnis and Shiites, it is important to remember that it is relatively recent, as indeed is the out-and-out hostility of the Lebanese Sunni leaders to the Assad regime. In 2001, Sheikh Mohammed Rashid Qabbani, the grand mufti of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, still welcomed the presence of “brotherly Syrian Arab troops.” Saudi Arabia and Syria together shaped the 1989 Taef agreement, which ended Lebanon’s civil war and institutionalized Damascus’s dominant influence in Lebanon, and the Saudi and Syrian rulers maintained a good relationship throughout the 1990s.

But the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq led to a huge shift in regional politics. The replacement of Saddam’s mainly Sunni regime by a Shia-led government unnerved the Saudi ruling family, whose long-term patronage of militant Sunnism took on new momentum. Fighters schooled in Saudi-financed colleges in Pakistan headed for Iraq to fight — the first Lebanese volunteers were already in Iraq in early 2003 to meet the American invaders.

In 2004, 26 Saudi clerics — including Sheikh Salamn ibn Fahd al-Odah — issued a ruling calling on Muslims to support jihad in Iraq. Sunni militants made scores of attacks on Shia holy places, violently enacting the long-standing distaste of Wahhabi clerics in Saudi Arabia for Shia veneration of religious leaders through the erection and visiting of shrines.

Whatever allegations U.S. politicians made concerning Iran’s role in Iraq, the bipartisan U.S. Study Group report of 2006 conceded that most “insurgents” wanted to “restore Sunni Arab rule” and that the goals of al-Qaeda included “a wider sectarian war” between Sunnis and Shiites. Especially in its recommendation that the United States engage in dialogue with Iran over Iraq, the report upset the Saudi ruling family.

In February 2007, Sheikh Abdullah ibn Jibreen, the leading Saudi cleric, ruled that shrines encouraged “the uneducated [to]believe those dead people are special” and explicitly stressed the duty of Muslims to “demolish these buildings.” A few months later, a bomb destroyed the minarets of the al-Askariyyeh shrine in Samarah, which had already been bombed in 2006. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s senior Shia cleric, probably averted civil war by forbidding Shiites to take to the streets.

Iran and Saudi Arabia: From 1979 onward

Although Iran had been almost entirely spared Wahabbi and al-Qaeda attacks on its own shrines, the threat spurred Tehran to diffuse tension with the Saudis. But the effort was far from straightforward.

When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president in 2005, his drive to rekindle the egalitarianism of the early days of the Revolution evoked unpleasant memories for the Saudi ruling elite of the era when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini had declared monarchy incompatible with Islam and called for a revolution of the “dispossessed” (mostazafin).

Nineteen seventy-nine was a crucial year for Saudi Arabia as well as for Iran. In November, the grand mosque in Mecca was seized by militants accusing the Sauds of hypocrisy and licentious living, provoking a bloody two-week battle in Islam’s holiest building before the surviving rebels were publicly beheaded. Saudi sponsorship of jihad in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of December 1979, organized by the head of Saudi intelligence, Faisal al-Turki, was in part a means to head off domestic unrest.

As observed by Steve Coll in Ghost Wars, his magisterial survey of the relationship between the Saudis, the United States, and the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Prince Turki also wanted to counter Iran:

Turki saw Saudi Arabia in continual competition with…Iran. He needed credible Sunni, pro-Saudi Islamist clients to compete with Iran’s clients, especially in countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, which had sizeable Shiite populations…. Prince Turki…found it easier to appease their domestic Islamist rivals by allowing them to proselytize and make mischief abroad than to confront and resolve these tensions at home…. Saudi Arabia feared Iranian influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia. The Taliban were useful allies for the aims of Saudi statecraft, but they also promoted Islamic values in accord with Saudi theology.
Relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran warmed during the presidencies of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani (1989-97) and Mohammad Khatami (1997-2005), but they were soon to deteriorate. Ahmadinejad offered an assertive Shiism that was less noticed in the West than his strident criticisms of Israel — but some in Iran saw a link between the two. At the beginning of 2007, Habibollah Asgaroladi, a senior member of the traditional conservative Motalefeh party, said Ahmadinejad had raised the issue of the Jewish holocaust in order to outflank Saudi Arabia across the Muslim world.

Many senior officials in Tehran, well aware that the Shiites are a minority in the Muslim world, believed it was not in Iran’s interests to bait the Saudis. In 2006, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei established a direct link to Saudi Arabia, bypassing Ahmadinejad, through his senior advisor Ali Akbar Velayati, and the Supreme Leader declared the Iranian year 1386 (March 2007-8) “the year of Islamic unity.” But tensions festered over Iraq.

The momentum of Sunni militancy

By 2007, pragmatists in Tehran were concerned that Sunni militancy was gaining such momentum that the Saudis were resisting discussions between Tehran and Washington over improving security in Iraq. One former senior official in Tehran told me that “the biggest obstacle to progress in U.S.-Iran talks is not now America, but the Israelis and the Arab establishment.”

Pressure was certainly building. The Saudi government in 2006 fired a security advisor, Nawaf Obaid, after he wrote in the Washington Post that Iraqi Sunnis could be “exterminated” by Iraq’s Shiites, and that Saudi Arabia should consider arming militant Sunnis including ex-Baathists.

The Shia “threat” in Iraq was enhanced by Saudi Arabia’s perception that its own impoverished Shia minority — around 30 percent of the population and concentrated in the oil-rich eastern provinces — was a potential fifth column, and also by Iran’s nuclear program, which had resumed uranium enrichment in 2006 after it had been suspended during negotiations with the European Union.

The Americans, meanwhile, followed the Israeli lead in linking the Iranian nuclear program to Ahmadinejad’s expressed views of Israel. Stuart Levey, the under-secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence under Bush (he retained the post under Obama until a year ago), said in September 2006: “In Iranian President Ahmadinejad, the world faces the dangerous combination of a leader dedicated to developing nuclear weapons and to materially supporting terrorists; a leader that has denied the Holocaust and called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map.'”

As the U.S. focus on al-Qaeda eased — on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Obama declared the group “on the path to defeat” — and American troops left Iraq, Washington’s alliance with the Saud family strengthened with a shared emphasis on opposing Iran. In 2007, the United States announced a $20 billion deal to supply advanced arms to Saudi Arabia and five other Arab states in the Persian Gulf, which came as the administration also proposed $30 billion in military aid to Israel: some analysts have projected U.S. arms sales to the Gulf Arab monarchies from 2011 to 2015 at $122.8 billion.

By 2009, Saudi Arabia overtook Israel as America’s main client, with supplies including new F-15 fighters, naval vessels precision-guided bombs and Hellfire air-to-surface missiles. Belying the image of Iran as a military superpower, Anthony Cordesman, of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, has estimated the Gulf Arab states are outspending Iran by ten to one.

So the Arab Spring came to the Persian Gulf, which is not only one of the world’s most militarized regions, but an area dividing along religious lines. Pro-reform demonstrators in Bahrain had no answer to the dispatch of Saudi Arabian troops in February last year, a move that drew Iranian protests. In June, Turki al-Faisal used a briefing for military officers in England to threaten that Saudi Arabia would use military, diplomatic, and economic measures against Iran. Prince Turki accused Iran of “meddling” and said Tehran was “very vulnerable in the oil sector” and that “more could be done to squeeze the current government,” as any reduction in oil revenues would cripple Tehran’s finances.

And in Lebanon?

Both Tehran and Riyadh were anxious to avoid confrontation in Lebanon. The Saudi monarchy’s caution led it to seek understandings with Syria at times of flashpoints, like Hezbollah’s military mobilization in Beirut in 2008 in response to the Future-led government’s attempts to limit its security presence.

But in August 2011, as Sunni anger in both Syria and Lebanon mounted over the Assad’s regimes repressive response to opposition protests, King Abdullah issued a strongly worded statement demanding Assad stop the “killing machine” and “end the bloodshed.” Saudi Arabia withdrew its ambassador, and soon Kuwait and Bahrain did as well.

Back in west Beirut, Shia viewers tuned in on March 15 to watch a speech from Hassan Nasrallah to graduating students in the Lebanese capital, broadcast live on Hezbollah’s al-Manar television channel. Nasrallah went to some lengths to explain Hezbollah’s stance on Syria:

We are afraid of a civil war, anarchy, and the weakening of Syria and its position as a pan-Arab force in the Arab-Israeli struggle and a genuine backer for the resistance movements in the region. Therefore, from the first day we called for avoiding an armed confrontation, that no one should take up arms, that the Syrians should proceed towards a political solution using the tools of a political solution. We all support reform, democracy, and respect for humans rights.
Some might say: You are not standing by the Syrian people; you support the regime. All right, tell me who the Syrian people are. True, there is a division among the people, but some sizable part of the Syrian people adopts this option. Some other part take another option. They say that the Syrian people are the ones with whom they are standing and not the ones who I am standing with.

But Nasrallah’s portrayal of Syria as a cross-religious backer of the Palestinian resistance has been undermined by the decision in February of Khaled Mashaal, leader of Hamas, to relocate from Damascus. Just as events in Syria have polarized Lebanon, so they have pushed Hamas away from Iran and into a clearer alignment with co-religionists in Ikhwan, the Muslim Brothers, who have become the largest party in the Egyptian parliament and may become an influential force in Syria.

While this remains for Hamas a balancing act — as Mashaal in February visited Jordan’s King Abdullah, whose father made peace with Israel in 1994, Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s Gaza prime minister, met Ahmadinejad in Tehran — their reorientation is significant.

It also fuels the fires of those, whether Sunni militants or not, who dream of Hezbollah and Iran’s demise. Earlier this week, Jeffrey Feltman, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, urged the Lebanese to use parliamentary elections next year to reject “the apologists of Assad’s butchery” since “no one outside of Syria has more of a stake in the outcome [in Syria]than the Lebanese.”

Those predicting Hezbollah’s demise in the event that the Assad regime falls should rethink, says Hanna Ziadeh. “The anti-Assad Lebanese may not get the landscape change in Lebanese politics that they hope for,” says the scholar. “Since the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005, the key player in Lebanon has no longer been Syria, but rather Hezbollah and behind it, Iran. The weakening of the Syrian factor would inevitably weaken the pro-Syrian fractions such as the Baath and Syrian Social Nationalists, and partly the Aounists, but will first start to affect Hezbollah when the party starts to need new ways to acquire weapons, which will not be that difficult as the party controls an important stretch of the Lebanese coast.”

Michael Young, opinion editor of the English-language Beirut Daily Star and a supporter of the Cedar Revolution, has argued for clearer discussions between Lebanon’s two main factions as the only alternative to violence with unpredictable consequences. “I don’t feel we will be able to avoid a dialogue,” he says. “The political forces should understand that even if the Assad regime falls, Hezbollah will remain quite strong.”

Additional reporting by Zeinab Charafeddine.

Gareth Smyth has reported since 1996 from Lebanon, Syria, and Iran.

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K. Haidar
K. Haidar
12 years ago

Iranian-Saudi Tensions Play Out in Beirut, Tripoli Very often authors fall into the trap of clichés and simplification. Just a few factual corrections. – Christians live aside Muslims and Druze also in West Beirut. In particular in Ras Beirut and Mar Elias. My building counts Shiite, Sunnis, Druze, Orthodox, and Protestants. – Alawites are not a sect of Shiism. Shiites require Alawites women to convert when marrying a Shia while Christians and Jews are not required to convert. – Lebanese who are with the Syrian revolution are with a people struggling for freedom and not because they are pro Saudi… Read more »


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