The Lebanese journalist Michael Young last week argued that Hizbollah – the Iranian backed, often bullying Lebanese militant Shia group that has dominated the country’s politics for a decade – is now reaching out to the country’s anxiety-ridden Christian community.
If this is the case, and there is every reason to believe it is, it will reshuffle Lebanon’s power-sharing deck, but what Mr Young didn’t mention is that it, along with the openness with Iran, might force Hizbollah to reinvent itself as a more business-friendly party.
Hizbollah already has a major Christian ally in the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) with whom it signed an infamous memorandum of understanding (MOU) in 2006. Hizbollah needed Christian cover in the post Syrian era, while the FPM’s leader General Michel Aoun, with an eye on the presidency, believed the party could deliver him the top job in return for his support.
It did not happen, but the axis has endured and now the former army commander has signed his own MOU, this time with his longtime political adversary, Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF), the second-biggest Christian party. The move effectively signalled the end of the LF’s alliance with the Sunni Future Movement and this new pact with the FPM, has effectively drawn LF nearer to Hizbollah’s orbit. In a changing region, Lebanon’s Shia and Christians, minorities in a Sunni dominated region, now recognise they have to get on.
You see, since 2006, a lot has happened: the Syrian civil war; the rise of Sunni militancy in the shape of ISIL; and, most importantly, for the purpose of this discourse, the US-Iranian nuclear deal. Emerging from international isolation – British foreign secretary Philip Hammond’s arrival in Tehran to reopen the British embassy on Sunday was clearly part of this new optimism – the Islamic Republic is setting out its stalls for western investors. Keen to get in on this new action is the Revolutionary Guard. The guardian of the Islamic Republic has a tasty investment portfolio, which includes Etemad-e-Mobin, a mobile telecom operator, valued at about $7.8 million and, apparently, soon to come up for auction. The country is well and truly open for business.
What has all this got to do with Lebanon? Well Hizbollah, is much closer to Iran that they would have us think (the party’s logo and that of the IRG are virtually interchangeable) and the apparent new appetite for commerce from its spiritual and financial sponsor coupled with its newfound chumminess with the Christian community will, I believe, herald a new positive economic climate in Lebanon, especially if Hizbollah fronts investment opportunities in Iran.
In this brave new world, Iran will offer what may be seen as a more palatable counterbalance to Saudi Arabia, a country that is not only close to the West but has been a patron to Lebanese Christian parties such as the LF and the Kataeb.
But to properly get on with the Christians, Hizbollah will have to flatter and woo. It’s not enough for the party to say “we will protect you with our weapons”. The Christians more than any other confession are historically paranoid of Lebanon’s identity being co-opted, and took the country into war over what it saw as excessive Palestinian influence in the 60s and early 70s.
And so until now Iranian support for Lebanon has been eyed with suspicion. Repeated offers to equip the army have been turned down, as they were seen as attempts to further consolidate Tehran’s grip on the country. But business is business and if Iran wants to make hay in the new sunshine, the Lebanese will be there if there is a buck to be turned.
It’s an interesting thought.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter