Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif arrived in Beirut on Tuesday to congratulate Michel Aoun on his recent election as Lebanon’s president, the highest-ranking foreign official to do so thus far. But few outside of Iran should be celebrating Lebanese democracy’s apparent success. The new occupant of Lebanon’s presidential palace in Baabda is a supporter of the Islamic Republic’s foreign policies and a staunch ally of its Lebanese Shiite proxy, Hezbollah.
With reappointed pro-Western prime minister Saad Hariri’s inability to effectively oppose the Shiite group, and a lack of credible U.S. deterrence to Iran’s regional expansionism, odds are high that Aoun’s presidency will end up serving Hezbollah and Tehran’s interests at the expense of Lebanon.
Lebanon remained without a president for the past two years, since the last president’s term expired in 2014. Forty-five consecutive parliamentary sessions to elect a successor ended in failure. Aoun was finally able to break that deadlock and clinch the presidency after unexpectedly obtaining the support of the pro-Western March 14 alliance’s two most prominent figures— Future Movement leader Saad Hariri and Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea.
But Aoun’s endorsement by these moderates should not allay concerns over his alliance with Hezbollah, nor will he now feel inclined to turn against the Shiite group. In fact, the day after Aoun took office, his Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) stressed that Hezbollah’s chief Hassan Nasrallah is their “ partner in victory.” The Party of God virtually imposed Aoun as the country’s next leader by boycotting elections unless Aoun ran unopposed and was guaranteed victory. For two years, Hezbollah held Lebanon’s politics hostage until Hariri, its chief political opponent, caved and endorsed Aoun on October 20, ushering him into the presidency.
Lebanon’s National Pact, the multi-confessional country’s unwritten power-sharing agreement, requires the president to be a Maronite Christian, with a Sunni prime minister, and Shiite speaker of parliament. The 1989 Taif Accords —which ended Lebanon’s civil war— limited the president ’s traditional constitutional powers, but Aoun will still have the capability to continue Lebanon’s national and foreign policy tilt toward Hezbollah. In fact, he has already done much to empower the Shiite group.
In 2006, Aoun signed a Memorandum of Understanding which cemented his party’s alliance with Hezbollah, granting it outside political influence. In it, he recognized the group’s right to retain its arms, in defiance of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701. In fact, Hezbollah assumes a central role in Aoun’s national defense strategy. And though he has promised to enable the Lebanese Army to “be the only military force throughout Lebanon,” the former Lebanese general still envisions the Shiite group assuming the task of national defense.
He continues to stress the country’s “need [for] Hezbollah to defend the Lebanese border” against external threats (Israel) due to the national army ’s weakness. In the past Aoun has called for Israel’s destruction, and he reiterated his enmity during his inaugural address. Echoing Hezbollah ’s excuse for continuing its war against the Jewish state, Aoun warned against Israel’s greed for Lebanese land and resources and vowed to “spare no effort or resistance” in expelling the Israeli military from the Shebaa Farms.
In 2011, Aoun’s FPM, in cooperation with Hezbollah, toppled then-Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s government ahead of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon ’s expected indictments of Hezbollah members for assassinating Hariri’s father, Rafiq. The Shiite group had previously labeled the international tribunal an instrument of Israeli foreign policy.
Aoun also supports a reformed parliamentary electoral law that would give Hezbollah more votes than any other rival party by changing the system to one of proportional representation. Lebanon’s current system grants a party all of a district’s parliamentary seats if it wins a bare majority there. Proportional representation, championed more vocally by Hezbollah since Aoun ’s election, would allot the remaining seats to the losing party. Hezbollah and its allies could then run candidates in districts where their rivals are leading by slim margins. Because the Shiite group is overwhelmingly dominant in its own areas, the pro-Hezbollah camp could thus gain more than half of the country’s 128 parliamentary seats.
Aoun also shares Hezbollah’s pro-Iranian leanings, championing the Islamic Republic’s regional influence and assistance to “the resistance” within Lebanon. He also supports Iran and Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian civil war on behalf of dictator Bashar al-Assad’s embattled regime. In fact, it was his Free Patriotic Movement that led Lebanon to reject this year’s Arab League condemnation of Iranian meddling in Arab affairs and Hezbollah ’s terrorist activities, isolating Beirut from Saudi Arabia and its other Arab allies.
Aoun’s emphasis in his inaugural address on maintaining an “independent” Lebanese foreign policy within the Arab League confirms his intention to continue Beirut’s pro-Iranian bent. And though he remained ambiguous about the Syrian conflict, Aoun called for preventing the war from reaching Lebanon, and said Beirut should assume a “preemptive and deterrent” posture towards Sunni jihadist groups. Hezbollah has read this as an endorsemen t of its activities in Syria. It is no wonder, then, that Tehran views his election as a “ victory for Nasrallah, the Resistance and Iran’s friends.”
Aoun’s first act as president was to reappoint Saad Hariri as prime minister. But just as Hariri was forced to endorse Hezbollah’s presidential choice, he will also have to form the next government on its terms. With its parliamentary allies, the Shiite group will force enough concessions out of Hariri, including cabinet appointments, that will allow it to determine the country’s domestic and foreign policy. With Hezbollah thus effectively controlling Lebanon, the implications for continuing U.S. military and security cooperation with Beirut are dire.
As president, Aoun is not likely to moderate or curtail his pro-Hezbollah and Iranian policies out of a sense of debt to Geagea and Hariri’s support for his nomination. A reading to that effect mistakenly ignores Lebanon and the region’s balance of power and how Aoun finally entered office. The pro-Western duo did not willingly endorse his candidacy. Hezbollah’s obstructionism forced their acquiescence to his election, conclusively demonstrating that the Shiite group is Lebanon’s strongest force and its main power - broker.
Now that Aoun is in office, Hariri and Geagea have nothing more to offer. Just as importantly, the United States’ receding Middle Eastern role and foreign policies have enabled the regional ascendancy of Hezbollah’s patron, Iran. If anything, the path forward for Lebanon’s new president points not in the direction of moderation, but to Tehran.
David Daoud is an Arabic-language research analyst at the Washington D.C.-based think tank the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.