Lebanon is a country full of contradictions and odd juxtapositions. It has a western-influenced government and a military financially supported by the US while Hezbollah – a group that the US considers a terrorist organization – is an active member of the government. The constitutionalized sectarianism in Beirut forces controversy and conflicts of interest. Once again, the sectarianism of Lebanon is causing headaches for Beirut.
The Iranian nuclear issue is not new and is certainly well-known – most relevant here is the desire of the US and other western countries to pass international sanctions. The passage of sanctions through the UN requires a security council vote. Unfortunately for Lebanon, the tiny country is currently the Arab representative on the council (does anyone else find it weird and unacceptable that there is an ‘Arab representative’?), meaning that Beirut has three options: with, against or abstain.
The difficulty of the Lebanese position is seemingly obvious. Hezbollah has very tight relations with Iran and would certainly create discord in the government if PM Hariri decided to vote for sanctions. Syrian influences in the country would also be disappointed and, perhaps led by the Syrian ally Nabih Berri, create problems as well. Meanwhile, if Lebanon chooses to vote against the sanctions, various parties within the country would be upset while the West could begin to view the Beirut government as more closely allied with Hezbollah and Iran than the US.
Realistically, the only option for Beirut is to abstain, as such a decision would create the least amount of disunity among Lebanese. Yet an abstention leaves many Arabs outside of Lebanon upset as well. Not only would Lebanon be forfeiting the Arab vote, strong regional powers would be angry at the unwillingness (read: inability) to take sides. Obviously, Iran would prefer a vote against the sanctions, but would not punish Lebanon for an abstention. The viciously anti-Iranian Saudi Arabia would be very upset with Lebanon.
[tweetmeme] Hariri finds himself, once again, in a difficult place. As Michael Young says, the best option is to quickly and privately convince parties that an abstention is the best option in order to avoid politicization of the vote:
All the Lebanese government can do at this stage is convince the permanent five and the Arab states of why an abstention is preferable. The argument, which it should develop as soon as possible, then make privately to avoid a divisive public discussion, could go something like this: Lebanon, alas, reflects the contradictions of the region. By abstaining, it could, first, cover up Arab divergences over Iran. Lebanon is also going through a necessary process of reconciliation, backed by the Arab world. Instability in the country serves no purpose, and instability will follow from a yes or no vote on sanctions. Lebanese instability also raises the probability of regional strife, whether between Sunnis and Shiites, or between Lebanon and Israel given the recent threats exchanged by both sides. This can only profit Iran, which is adept at exploiting regional polarization. We understand your worries, but you have to understand ours.
Ultimately, all parties in Lebanon would accept an abstention. They have no choice. However, the danger is that a loud public debate before the voting happens could be exploited by various sides to raise the heat on the government, perhaps on unrelated matters. It will be very difficult for Hariri to avert this, since among his Cabinet partners several have an interest in undermining his policies to advance their parochial agendas.
There is a small chance that Lebanon will be saved from this dilemma. If China chooses to veto the sanction – remember, China is typically adverse to messing with other countries’ internal matters – Lebanon’s vote becomes meaningless. However, US officials have started talking optimistically about the Chinese vote. Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, VP Joe Biden and National Security Advisor Jim Jones have all made comments about the likelihood of a Chinese vote for sanctions (or a Chinese abstention).
As the vote nears it will be interesting to see the actions of the various parties in Lebanon. Undoubtedly, those for and against sanctions will try to use the vote in their favor, though knowing that an abstention is the most likely outcome. Young again:
Saad Hariri will find himself in the midst of a mess, and the Syrians will turn to the Saudis and promise to settle everything. They will bring Berri around, as well as Hizbullah – both of whom always intended to accept a Lebanese abstention anyway – in the process discrediting the government, the prime minister, and the very notion that the Lebanese can settle their problems without Syria.
That’s why Hariri must act quickly and quietly to get the ball rolling on endorsement of the Lebanese position, before this is overwhelmed by partisan politics and Syrian manipulation. Trusting in a Chinese veto is not a policy; it’s a prayer that might very well not be heard.
Photo from Al Soufha Al Ra’issia