Lebanon used to be the Paris of the middle east, an oasis for free markets, good investments and relative stability. The leftovers of French influence accompanied by Maroon Christian presence allowed the survival in a not so safe environment. Over the years the demographics changed and the equilibrium came out of balance. The outcome was a very long and ugly civil war, which left many scars but allowed the basic guidelines to prevail: the president is Christian, the prime minister is Sunni and the speaker of parliament is Shiite. These three pillars kept everything together, as long as Iran, through Hezbollah, didn’t start to send their tentacles into first politics and then economics.
Over the recent years Iran’s interest in the region grew. Iran needed access to the Mediterranean Sea and decided to use their bridge head in Lebanon. The main effort was to strengthen the Shiite stranglehold on Lebanon, eventually leading to taking over control of the country.
At the time there were two main trajectories. One, as mentioned above, was and still is the access to the Mediterranean Sea. This in itself is crucial, as with the nowadays full control over Iraq and a possible foot hold in Syria, the control over Lebanon would provide Iran territorial continuation, very much like the intended extension of ISIS. With the Arab spring, Iran probably decided to use the weakness of Syrian regime to produce a lasting foothold in the country. Had they not tried to pull that off in parallel, they might have already fully succeeded in Lebanon. The Syrian arena becomes more and more problematic, as Iran has to deal with a friendly competitor, Russia. Iran depends on the good will and weapons of Russia and eventually will lose most of its investment in Syria, although most lives lost were Hezbollah combatants.
The second trajectory is that of holding Lebanon hostage. Iran understands that Lebanon has a special status, as it contains the most profound Christian population in the middle-east. In the north of the country, we have the impoverished Sunni population already close to revolution. With Iran holding the future of Lebanon in her hands, this is a strong negotiation instrument dealing with the west as well as the Sunni Arab world.
In Lebanon, Iran not only needs to produce a local foot hold, but also to provide long term stability, not of the country itself, but of the grasp on the country she will eventually take over. In that Iran has a lot of experience. One kind of experience is that of being taken over by mainly western countries, wanting to control the oil fields. Another kind is that of IRGC taking over the Iranian economy. Nothing is new to Iran and she has been doing it for years with direct neighbors. In order to do so, she relies on preferably Shiite local minorities. She will take her chances with Suni Muslims, as long as she can control the action.
Although hard to believe, the many years of inner struggle in Lebanon made her more stable and experienced in handling a crisis. It took some outside interference and some mistrust in the Lebanese banking system to startle the pillars of financial sanity. Hezbollah started taking over the southern part of the country, started initiating aggressions against Israel and abusing the border arrangements with Syria to smuggle Iranian supplies. Very soon Iran, through Hezbollah, started to call the shots in Lebanon:
A. They strengthened their representation in parliament, pushed out of the way any opposition, and if they were not complying, they just killed them.
B. Iran and Hezbollah abused the Lebanese Banks for money laundering. Foreign investors lost their trust in the Lebanese banking system, tourists stopped visiting and within a very short period of time Iran drew the economic carpet from under Lebanon’s feet. At first it looked like Beirut might survive again, but the flood of Syrian refugees brought it to its knees, and finally, without even bringing up accusations about who’s chemicals blew up in the harbor, Lebanese government allegedly lost its legitimacy.
C. The real game changer was the take-over of the market routes. Full control of the ports allowed Hezbollah, and thus Iran, to control the market. Shortage in medical drugs allowed Hezbollah to import cheap Iranian knock-offs. Later they started to import cheap clothes from Iran and Syria. At first, they sold their imports only in Hezbollah owned El-Nour supermarket chain, later they broadened the circulation to larger parts of Lebanon.
D. Iran understood that it was time to make a legislation change. Hezbollah invested in Parliament, strengthening her PR, playing the role of the savior of the people against Israel and against poverty. Hezbollah turned into a real political player, taking over ministry of health and industry, whereas Amal, another Shiite party that nowadays is under Hezbollah’s control, holds finance and a double portfolio of culture and agriculture. The pro-Syrian Marada movement holds labor and transportation and public works. Thus, Iran has officially everything under control. She can open or close financing for imports, open or close ports and roads, allow or stop exports of the only real export left in Lebanon, agricultural product. Even their involvement in the health ministry gives them an edge.
E. Currently we see the full strength of Iran’s involvement
b. The lack of foreign currency from exports undermines any government capabilities to pay back debts, thus thwarting any attempts to renew loans or get any other financial help, except a small patch by the world bank.
c. The finance ministry drives the country into a chaotic whirlwind of inflation, forcing the population to buy Iranian and Syrian imports, supporting the Iranian economy of Lebanon.
d. As drugs shortage hit Lebanon in the midst of the Corona pandemic, Hezbollah not only imported the cheap drugs, but used the momentum to buy off pharmacies in financial crisis.
e. In a short period of time Hezbollah channeled the smuggled goods from Iran in Syria into their stores, the petrochemical products and gasoline into their gas stations and thus forced their opposition into selling their business.
Nowadays a Lebanese citizen can choose one of three solutions. The easiest way is to join Hezbollah, if not as a Shiite, then as a party member. The second is leaving the country, for which you have to be wealthy, as money has lost its value. The third is a new civil war, in which case one can assume that Hezbollah will take serious action and might even call Iran for help.
In the meantime, criminality is on the rise, water and electricity shortage take the last hope of the civilians and the most likely outcome to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe, will be that the west will approach Iran for help, although she is the initiator and sole benefactor of the crisis.