Dear Donald Trump, Lebanon Still Matters If You Want to Stop Iran and Hezbollah

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri gestures as he delivers a speech during a gathering to mark the 10th anniversary of the assassination of his father Rafic Hariri, a former prime minister, on February 14, 2015, at BIEL Convention Centre in Beirut. Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's first visit to Washington during the Trump administration will be difficult. Beirut has long been a headache for the United States, and he's going to have an uphill battle convincing U.S. policymakers to maintain assistance to Lebanon, which is commonly associated with dysfunction and domination by Iran's proxy Hezbollah.

But as Tehran continues its quest for regional hegemony and as the idea of secular democracy appears more threatened than ever in the Arab world, abandoning this important—if imperfect—ally would be a serious mistake.

Lebanon remains a natural Arab ally of Washington, particularly compared to others like Qatar—a monarchy that has spent decades exporting extremism. Its weakness made it a base for Hezbollah, but Lebanon was founded as a pluralistic, if flawed, republic, and has a religiously diverse and relatively Western and secular society.

Lebanon's geographic location makes it no less strategic. Iran considers the country a main battleground against the United States—it is an outlet to the Mediterranean, borders Israel and acts as a gateway to and from war-torn Syria. Abandoning Lebanon is therefore not an option.

To make Beirut a credible partner and to reverse Tehran's influence, Washington should employ a three-pronged policy: strengthening its new prime minister, Saad Hariri; maintaining support for the Lebanese Armed Forces; and squeezing Hezbollah.

Saad Hariri remains the United States' genuine, if flagging, ally in Lebanon. Desperate to end the political stagnation that served Hezbollah's interest by discrediting the Lebanese republic, Hariri made several misguided decisions—like crowning Hezbollah-allied Michel Aoun as president—leaving the pro-Western March 14 alliance in disarray, undermining his credibility among Sunnis and strengthening Iran's hold on the country.

However, Hariri had little choice. Lebanon's politics are transnational, and the fortunes of its domestic factions rise and fall with those of their foreign patrons. The United States spent the last decade accommodating his opponents' patrons, Syria and Iran, and signaling its withdrawal from the region, weakening his other backer, Saudi Arabia. Hariri and March 14 were alone while their March 8 opponents, particularly Hezbollah, were reinvigorated by Tehran's expanding regional influence.

Nonetheless, he continues opposing the group on critical matters—calling on it to disarm and maintaining support for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. He even directly challenged Hezbollah on its home turf a day after its recent provocative tour on Israel's border, by carrying out the first official visit by a Lebanese prime minister to south Lebanon in decades.

Hariri's Mustaqbal Party—a genuinely democratic movement—remains the Lebanese parliament's largest. However, Lebanon's new electoral law could change that, particularly as Hariri's concessions to Hezbollah have shaken the confidence of his Sunni base. To regain their support, and to again rally March 14 as a credible political force, he must robustly challenge Hezbollah between now and parliamentary elections in 2018. But for that he needs dependable American support that has teeth to it. Encouraging words won't suffice when Iran is backing its proxy and their political allies with action.

The United States must also maintain its support for the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), and can even tie increasing its aid and cooperation with LAF disassociation from Hezbollah. The LAF is far from an ideal partner. However, as long as it is supplied by the U.S., it remains a stopgap against full Iranian domination of Lebanon. Halting American support for the Lebanese Army would lead other backers—including France and the U.K.—to follow suit.

Desperation for arms and continued security threats would force Beirut to accept Iran's long-standing offer of military patronage. Whether Tehran supplies it with weapons, or merely fronts the bill, it will control Beirut's decision-making unimpeded. The United States will have thus conceded the final piece of Iran's long-coveted land bridge, with a Mediterranean outlet, creating a nightmare situation for neighboring U.S. allies.

The United States must also continue crippling Hezbollah with sanctions, but avoid harming the Lebanese state in the process. Lebanon and Hezbollah are not symbionts, but competitors for Lebanese support—particularly Shiites, Lebanon's fastest growing community. While Hezbollah's actual governmental power is relatively small, its Shiite base—the vast majority of which supports it out of gratitude, not ideological belief—attracts the political alliances that allow the group to dominate the government.

The United States should therefore squeeze Hezbollah's finances by enacting the "HIFPA Amendments Act," which would thwart its funding from foreign sponsors and drug-trafficking. By clipping Hezbollah's purse strings, Washington would be better positioned to strengthen Lebanese state's institutions and civil society—currently in abysmal shape—to credibly compete for Shiite support by filling the void and providing for their needs.

Washington isn't a charity, and Lebanon's inherent weakness is not carte blanche for inaction. True, Beirut's pro-Western forces have yet to concede their country to Tehran or its proxy, and have even taken some positive steps toward reclaiming their sovereignty. They can't realistically reform Lebanon overnight, but they can still do more within their domestic constraints to demonstrate their value as U.S. allies. But they need the confidence to know they are not fighting the battle against Iran and Hezbollah alone, and that Washington—like Tehran—will back its commitment with action.

David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI) focusing on Hezbollah and Lebanon. Twitter: DavidADaoud