x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Spectre of Hizbollah hangs heavily over talks with Iran

As Iran and major western powers try to find agreement on Iran's nuclear programme, the fate and role of Hizbollah should also be kept in mind.

Iran and the major western powers failed last week to arrive at a deal over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Given the stakes, the negotiating process will resume and an arrangement will probably be reached. However, tensions between Iran and its adversaries transcend the nuclear question, and unless some means is found to address them, many regional governments will be left dangerously dissatisfied.

A salient problem is what to do with the Iranian-backed Hizbollah, which has acted as a foreign legion of sorts for the Islamic Republic in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere. With its global network of members and influence in Shia communities worldwide, the party offers a valuable instrument of influence to Iran.

For that reason alone, Iran is likely to resist any broadening of the negotiating agenda with the west to include Hizbollah. Tehran will argue that Hizbollah is a Lebanese party and, as such, it has no say over its future. Yet Hizbollah has become an impediment in relations between the west and Iran, not least because both the Americans and Europeans have placed the party on their respective lists of terrorist organisations. Iran cannot evade the issue indefinitely.

Some might argue that Hizbollah is tolerable to all sides, given the desire in Washington, Brussels, and Tehran for a nuclear agreement. Others will point out that until a nuclear deal is reached, it is pointless to discuss other matters. Indeed, such a deal would create the mutual confidence necessary to conclude further arrangements later.

Both arguments are to an extent true, but real normalisation will at some point require contending with Hizbollah. The ultimate question is whether Hizbollah becomes a matter of negotiations between the west and the Iranians or not. The United States and the Europeans can exploit their crippling economic leverage over Iran by insisting that the party must be on the table, or else the improvement in relations with Iran will suffer.

What would the objectives of such negotiations be? Would they aim to disband Hizbollah entirely? To have the party surrender its weapons to the Lebanese state? To have it suspend all activities overseas, from planting bombs on tourist buses to dispatching combatants throughout the Middle East? Each represents great difficulties.

The first, the complete dissolution of Hizbollah, is an ambition too far, given the party’s genuine anchoring in Lebanese Shia society. At any rate, it is the party’s weapons, not its existence, that are a problem for its foes in Lebanon and throughout the region.

More achievable is a formula that disarms Hizbollah, while adopting a strategy that can speak to the Shia fear of future attacks by Israel. This has been the focus of the sterile dialogue to reach a Lebanese national defence strategy. One reason it has failed is that Hizbollah seeks only to preserve its weapons for Iran, not arrive at a modus vivendi to reassure its compatriots who feel threatened by the party.

The third means, to suspend Hizbollah’s military activities outside Lebanon might satisfy the West in principle but it will have marginal impact in Lebanon and the Arab world, where there is no faith that such a vague promise can be effectively implemented. It’s difficult to verify that a party is not doing something, and monitoring Hizbollah is never easy.

A principal merit of discussing Hizbollah’s future is to reassure the Arab states, and even Israel, who are suspicious of the current talks with Iran. This opposition, as much from the Saudis as from the Israelis, could undermine a broader understanding between the west and Iran. A consensus over Hizbollah would improve a range of issues, not least the sectarianism deriving from Saudi fears of Iran.

In addition, a nuclear deal, by neutralising the possibility of an American or Israeli assault against Iran, will mean it becomes less necessary to have an armed Hizbollah in place to act as a deterrent. This may push Iran to reconsider its priorities, and determine that maintaining an armed group viewed in the west and in much of the Arab world as a threat will turn into a long-term liability – one that defines Iran in a way the country no longer wishes to be defined.

That is why the preferable thing is for the western countries to reach general agreement among themselves and with the Arab states, then present a unified position to the Iranians. The most sensible option is that Hizbollah hand over its weapons to the Lebanese state and disband its military institutions, but not its political and social institutions, in exchange for integrating Hizbollah combatants into an army that embraces a defence strategy acceptable to all Lebanese.

If so, the western and Arab goal could help bolster a domestic Lebanese dialogue over such a strategy, but this time one that addresses the anxieties among Hizbollah’s foes, not that becomes an empty framework to avoid progress on disarming Hizbollah. Iran can and should play a central role in this process, as its participation alone would help ensure a successful outcome.

It may be too soon to expect far-reaching results when it comes to Hizbollah. But by placing the topic on the agenda now for discussion, and insisting that it cannot be avoided, the western and Arab nations would underline its importance as a prerequisite for a major improvement in their relations with Iran.

Hizbollah has been a great asset to Iran in recent decades. Decisions taken at its expense will be resisted by powerful sectors in the Iranian system. But the party speaks to an identity that, in a not too distant future, Iran may want to – have to – abandon. Now is the time to show Tehran that Hizbollah is a luxury it may no longer be able to afford.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling