Is Lebanon On The Verge Of A New Civil War?

The two explosions that killed at least 23 people this week in Beirut are the latest sign that the country is moving toward the kind of conflict that has torn it apart in the past.

Lebanese soldiers guarding the site of the Nov. 19 blast in Beirut
Lebanese soldiers guarding the site of the Nov. 19 blast in Beirut
Farid Aichoune

Does this mean civil war is coming back? After the twin explosions against Iran's embassy in Beirut on Tuesday — which has left 23 people dead, including Iranian cultural adviser Sheikh Ibrahim Ansari — this question is an important one.

Lebanon finds itself entangled in a major political crisis inextricably linked to the Syrian conflict: Since Prime Minister Najib Mikati resigned in March, there is no government. Tuesday's attack, which also left 146 injured, signals the final defeat of Lebanon's "keeping-a-distance" policy regarding Syria.

An officer of the Lebanese intelligence services told Le Nouvel Observateur, "Sunni and Shiite political leaders are both responsible for the escalation of attacks and clashes between the two communities."

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the leader of the Movement of the Future party, who is close to Saudi Arabia, has armed and encouraged Lebanese people to join the fight in Syria against Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah, replied by sending his Shiite fighters on the front to assist the Damascus regime.

Hezbollah stronghold

This was the third attack in the southern part of Beirut — a stronghold of Hezbollah — in four months. The previous two had killed 27 people and wounded another 47. The miserable irony is that Iran had moved its diplomatic representatives into the Bir Hassan neighborhood, dubbed "Hezbollahland," for security reasons. The explosions are a stinging setback for the "party of God" who couldn't protect its own population and its allies. It made a point of saying it would secure the Shiite population without the help of the police or the army, and failed. Even worse, it failed to prevent an attack against its godfather, Iran.

This week's attack was most likely a response to the Aug. 24 car bomb attack in Tripoli, the main Sunni city in north Lebanon — close to the Syrian border — that killed 45. Many believe it was the work of the Syrian intelligence services.

Lebanon's second largest city is also home to several Salafi groups who support their Syrian brothers in the fight against Assad. Many in Tripoli still haven't forgiven the 1982 massacre of Hama — a Syrian city, north of Lebanon — in which 25,000 people died as Hafez al-Assad's army besieged the town to end an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood. They haven't forgiven either the expelling of Yasser Arafat from Tripoli the following year, which forced him to exile in Tunisia.

By attacking Hezbollah once again, Syrian-Lebanese jihadist groups are trying to push the "party of God" into increasing its military aid for Damascus, which could set off all-out chaos. This wouldn't be to Syria's advantage, as the country finds in Lebanon an economic lifeline, since the Shiite party still quietly controls large parts of the country.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!