On Sept. 30, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, announced Tehran’s readiness to provide military assistance to Lebanon. The poorly equipped Lebanese army has been battling Sunni insurgents along the border with Syria for more than two months. Since early August, insurgents aligned with Jabhat Al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other factions of the Syrian opposition have stormed the Lebanese town of Ersal, capturing 20 soldiers and policemen. Three of the soldiers have since been executed, their brutal deaths displayed in graphic detail to the Lebanese public. This has set off a political crisis that is now shaking up the Lebanese political arena.
A key U.S. ally in the region, Lebanon relies heavily on U.S. military aid to bolster its defense capabilities. “U.S. support comprises approximately 75 percent of all international security assistance to Lebanon,” according to a White House fact sheet. Since 2005 the United States has provided nearly $700 million worth of equipment to the Lebanese army, mostly in the form of helicopter spare parts, armored vehicles, assault rifles, mortars and nonlethal support gear. But the fighting in Ersal exposed huge weaknesses in the Lebanese armed forces, largely owing to a lack of heavy weaponry, ammunition shortages and virtually no air support. Last month, in response to a request from the Lebanese army for more aircraft, the U.S pledged an additional $19 million in military aid to Lebanon. But virtually all the promised aid consisted of light arms.
The U.S. has always been reluctant to adequately arm its Arab allies, in order to protect Israel’s military advantage in the region. But this policy approach may now undermine Washington’s objectives in the fight against ISIL. The rise of ISIL and Washington’s unwillingness to provide substantive military support for the Lebanese army has opened the door for Tehran to fill the void. The dramatic events of the last few months have altered the dynamics of U.S.-Iranian relations on regional issues, with both fighting ISIL, if for different reasons.
The fighting in Ersal has exposed shifting political alliances in Lebanon. For example, the Western- and Saudi-backed March 14 alliance (which opposes the Syrian regime) and the Syrian-backed and mostly Shia March 8 alliance have both expressed support for the Lebanese army in its fight against the armed groups. This is despite the fact that each political bloc supports opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, and differences between the two blocs have left Lebanon without a president for nearly half a year.
The turmoil in Lebanon is reflective of a wider shift in Middle East politics. For instance, the rise of ISIL has brought regional rivals — particularly Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States — closer, even though each side views the others’ participation and sincerity in the endeavor with skepticism. The regional consensus against ISIL has given Iran a political space to openly push forward with policies that would have only a few months ago been met with swift opposition from the United States and its allies in the region.
While there appears little to no cooperation between Washington and Tehran in the fight against ISIL, the fact that the United States is tolerating the active Iranian presence in the Iraqi theater is a dramatic shift from years of blaming Iran for virtually every problem in the region, from Iraq to Syria to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, of course, to Lebanon. Shamkhani’s latest comments that Iran would soon be asking the Lebanese defense ministry for a list of weapons needed by the army takes it one step further. It signals a dramatic shift from a previously rejected Iranian offer to support the Lebanese army and civil institutions. It is not clear if Washington will allow the aid and Tehran’s participation to materialize. Past Iranian offers were met with hostility from the United States and its Lebanese allies, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton equating such support at the time as an “effort to destabilize or inflame tensions within Lebanon.”
The United States and Iran find themselves in a situation in which both countries are supporting the Lebanese army, albeit separately — a scenario with analogies to the current situation in Iraq.
Meanwhile, in Israel, where Iran is consistently portrayed as an existential threat to the Jewish state, no one is taking Iran’s role in the fight against ISIL lightly, much less Tehran’s offer to equip the Lebanese, which Israel most likely views as an attempt to more effectively arm Israel’s archenemy, Hezbollah. On Oct. 7, Hezbollah claimed responsibility for an attack on an Israeli army position along the border with Lebanon, showing that the group’s engagement in Syria has not deterred it from confronting Israel. At the U.N. General Assembly, while the U.S was busy putting together a coalition to fight ISIL, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it a point to remind everyone about the “Iranian nuclear threat” while attempting to convince his audience that Iran should be viewed as a nuclear-armed version of ISIL.
However, Netanyahu’s warnings about the Iranian threat “seemed to fall on deaf ears,” according to Haaretz’s Amos Harel, as the world seemed more concerned with ISIL. Further complicating the situation is the simple fact that Israel is not welcome in Washington’s anti-ISIL coalition, since Israel’s presence (because of its occupation of the Palestinian territories and with the recent war in Gaza still fresh in everyone’s memory) could unravel what many commentators are referring to as a coalition of the unwilling.
With regional consensus against ISIL, Tehran has found the political space necessary to get involved in places where the U.S and its regional allies previously set up major roadblocks. The notion of Iran’s openly training and equipping the Iraqi army and even discussing arming Lebanon despite its proximity to Israel would only a few months ago have had the potential to create a political firestorm. Not anymore.