GeoBrief: The Lebanese Armed Forces as an arena for US-Iran antagonism

With the United Kingdom recently deciding to ban Hezbollah in its entirety, including its political wing and effectively labelling it as a terrorist organisation, a more complicated situation has also arisen: Iran’s deeper involvement in the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Because of its US-backed programmes and the increase of Iranian influence and Hezbollah in the country, the Lebanese army has effectively turned into an arena for a US and Iranian ‘arms race’.

With the only entity allowed to retain its own militia unit post-civil war, the Shi’a organisation has had its numbers grown to such an extent that the group now supersedes the Lebanese Army’s strength. Currently, Hezbollah is considered a powerful entity and effectively a transnational non-state (or quasi-state) actor, operating in various countries outside Lebanon. LAF is currently on a US-backed programme that focuses on improving and strengthening the army, in order to meet the demands for maintaining national security and defence, as the state’s official national force.

Nonetheless, Hezbollah is allegedly influenced and funded by Iran. Iran’s former Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif announced on 10 February 2019 that Iran was ready to support Lebanon militarily as soon as Beirut accepted its offer. In an interesting twist of events, however, Zarif resigned only 2 weeks later on 25 February. Despite this, it seems that the offer to strengthen the Lebanese Army at the expense of American influence is still on the table, as the March 8th camp has insisted that this would also prove that Lebanon is independent and ready to make its own choices when it comes to defence.

Hezbollah’s Hasan Nasrallah played a key role in pushing for public support over Iran arming LAF. Tehran holds considerable influence over the cabinet, due to the pro-Iranian March 8th alliance now occupying the majority of seats in both parliament and cabinet posts. The offer brought by Zarif has sparked a debate between the March 8th and the March 14th alliances, the latter being Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s camp.

Speculation thus far gears towards the assumption that Nasrallah (Hezbollah’s leader) anticipated a rejection of the offer, which would give a better pretext towards justifying Hezbollah as a better-equipped actor to defend Lebanon. What is interesting, nonetheless, is that cross-sect local media, including Shi’a sources, do not encourage the government to take Iran’s offer. It remains to be seen how Zarif’s replacement will approach the offer, even though the final say lies with the Lebanese executive.

By Petros Petrikkos

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