In Hezbollah's homeland of Lebanon, the preliminary agreement between the US and Iran to scale back the Islamic Republic's nuclear enrichment program is being celebrated as a resounding victory.
A poster of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and his predecessor Ayatollah Khomeini with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah adorns a wall in Beirut's Dahiyeh neighborhood. Photos by the author
Southern Lebanon is getting its first taste of spring. Wildflowers brightly dot the grassy hills and insects buzz lazily in the sun, while children run around a picnic blanket spread with food. Dressed in a full-length black chador, their mother smokes a narghile—a water pipe—while watching her children play.
Their father, a Hezbollah captain, stands a short distance away, not 100 yards from the border that divides the country from its neighbor, Israel, with which Lebanon has officially been at war for decades.
He's a wiry, hard-eyed man in his early 40s, wearing camouflage. (Like other members of Hezbollah quoted in this story, he would only speak to me under the condition of anonymity.)
"I bring my family here all the time," he says. "I own this land, and it is beautiful. Why should they be afraid?"
He points at a clearing nearby. "This is where we sent the Israelis running back home in 2006," he says with a smile. "We gave them a welcome they'll never forget... But let them see what will happen if they come back. This is a new era for us."
Here in Hezbollah's homeland, the preliminary agreement between the US and Iran to scale back the Islamic Republic's nuclear enrichment program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions is being celebrated as a resounding victory. Iran has been arming and funding Hezbollah, a Shia Muslim militant group, since its inception in the 1980s, during the Lebanese Civil War. Its patronage has secured unflinching loyalty. In a speech Monday, Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah heralded the nuclear deal as a blow against Israel and a move designed to prevent a catastrophic confrontation that would engulf the Middle East.
The US is frightened of Iran, because it is a superpower now. This is not Iraq or Afghanistan. If the US blinks, Iran would destroy it.
"There is no doubt that the Iranian nuclear deal will be big and important to the region," Nasrallah said in an interview with Syria's al-Ikhbariya television channel. "The agreement, God willing, rules out the specter of world war... The Israeli enemy was always threatening to bomb Iranian facilities and that bombing would definitely lead to a regional war."
His followers seem to agree. In a sunny backyard in Dahieh, Hezbollah's stronghold in southern Beirut, one of their fighters, a man we'll call Hussein, discusses the agreement with enthusiasm.
"This doesn't affect us directly, but what's good for Iran is good for Hezbollah," he says. "The US is frightened of Iran, because it is a superpower now. This is not Iraq or Afghanistan. If the US blinks, Iran would destroy it. We aren't just a bunch of Arabs. If they have a problem with Iran, they have a problem with all the Shia."
Asked if the nuclear deal will change Hezbollah's stance toward the United States, Hussein offers a scornful chuckle.
"There is a little cooperation between us because of Daesh [the Islamic State]," he says, referring to Hezbollah's war against the Sunni militants, which coincides with America's own military action against the group in Iraq. "But we still have a lot of issues we need to resolve. We still mistrust the US. They could turn on us anytime, especially if the government changes. We think Obama's talk is just talk. Is he watching the kids being slaughtered in Yemen? Where are the guns in Yemen coming from? The US. The Americans said they would help the Saudis with intelligence. We consider the planes attacking Yemen to be US planes."
Hussein is alluding to the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and allies have been carrying out airstrikes against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels for two weeks.
The Yemeni crisis adds yet another element to the complex and dangerous dance between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the region, one in which the US and Israel may be moving away from each other strategically. In an interview with CNN's State of the Union on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lambasted the deal, calling Iran a country of "congenital cheating" and suggested it cannot be trusted to abide by the terms of the agreement. This led Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to express a wish that Netanyahu "contain himself." It was the type of exchange that has become commonplace between US officials and Netanyahu's government—an increasingly fraught relationship riddled with disagreements on how best to contain threats in the Middle East.
Despite this shift in the alliance between the US and Israel during the respective terms of Obama and Netanyahu, and the appearance of a potential beginning to rapprochement between America and Iran, experts don't seem convinced that the agreement will change much for the tiny, war-weary nation of Lebanon. Bilal Saab, senior fellow for Middle East security at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC–based international-affairs think tank, says the nuclear agreement will not affect the Iran-Hezbollah-Israel triangle in the slightest.
"The potential deal changes absolutely nothing in that regard," Saab argues. "The deterrence dynamics between Iran-Hezbollah and Israel remain the same. Israel will always be concerned about Hezbollah's growing missile arsenal and Hezbollah and Iran will continue to build a more robust deterrence posture along the Lebanon-Israel borders and now possibly near the Golan Heights in Syria."
In fact, according to Tzvi Kahn, senior policy analyst for the Foreign Policy Initiative, an advocacy group committed to opposing the nuclear agreement, if the deal is finalized, it will likely encourage Iran to increase its sponsorship of Hezbollah.
"Iran's behavior in the region over the past two years of negotiation has really not been moderated in any way," Kahn says. "On the contrary, I would say its aggression in the region has increased. It has much greater control in Syria, Iraq, and of course Yemen is the latest front. Its arms shipments to Hezbollah have continued... Assuming Iran complies with the agreement, what will certainly happen is that it will receive significant sanctions relief, and will emerge from the international isolation under which it has suffered for many years. And that means, in practice, that millions of dollars will flow back into the country, which will lead to Iran being able to use this economic power to more aggressively support its proxies, of which Hezbollah is one."
Hezbollah members seem to be aware of this potentially beneficial aspect to the deal. In a small southern village near the Israeli border, a local Hezbollah official holds court in a modest but comfortable house. Every now and then, someone will wander in to have paperwork stamped, and at one point, an old man sits to listen to the official, or mokhtar, explain his views on the arrangement between the US and Iran.
We still don't trust the US. In politics, there is no one who isn't a snake. But there are good things about America. They built an excellent university here in Lebanon.
"It's an important deal... We're going to see a big economic boom now," the mokhtar, a tall man in his 50s with a friendly smile, says. "Iran had an embargo on it before, and they were doing well. Imagine if they lift the embargo now, what that will mean for us."
He's more measured about the deal's potential to change the dynamic between Hezbollah and the US, however. "We still don't trust the US. In politics, there is no one who isn't a snake. But there are good things about America. They built an excellent university here in Lebanon. If you graduate from it, you can find a job. And of course, you have to go through the US to get anything accomplished in most countries. Even in Somalia, they stick their nose in to the point that the Somalis can't elect a president without the US's permission."
Asked about the increasing rumors of cooperation between Hezbollah and the US in their respective battles against the Islamic State, the mokhtar nods.
"You could say there is some type of coordination going on between us and the US," he says. "We have a common enemy, Daesh. As you know, we are both fighting them. So we meet the US on that level. There are no treaties, no operation rooms, nothing in writing. We kill, they kill. That's all... But there are still many problems between us. If it is true that Iran and the US are friends, then why won't the US allow the LAF [Lebanese Armed Forces] to arm themselves with donations from Iran?"
His amiable smile evaporates when Israel is brought up. "I think the Israelis are up to no good," he says. "This deal has made them crazy. But they should know there are enough Iranians coming to the Golan that they will soon be as direct a threat to Israel as we are... During the negotiations, Kerry came to [Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad] Zarif [Iran's chief negotiator] and asked him to tone down Iran's rhetoric towards Israel, for the sake of the deal. Zarif said [paraphrasing], 'This is not my choice. This is the people's choice. Israel does not exist. It is our duty to remove this cancer.'
"Everyone used to stomp on the Shia as a society," the mokhtar continues grimly. "But it is our glory days now. We paid dearly in blood. No one gave it to us on a silver platter... If the government in the US changes, they should know that we will change too. We are self-sufficient. We don't need their kindness."
In contrast, President Obama has expressed his hope that the nuclear deal will lead to a shift toward moderation in Iran's regional influence. Randa Slim, an adjunct research fellow at the New America Foundation and a scholar at the Middle East Institute, does see some distant potential for the deal to encourage Iran to reign in its regional proxies and allies, Hezbollah among them.
"The more connections we can establish between Iran and the rest of the international community, the more likely—in the long term—that we will be able to moderate Iran's participation in the fields of terrorism and covert activity," Slim says. "That will push Iran and Hezbollah to abandon the kind of covert war which they have been waging against Israel for decades. We need engagement with Iran, and this deal is the gateway to establishing that kind of engagement. It's not going to lead to immediate results. After all, the deal is happening against a backdrop of deep mistrust that has existed for thirty or forty years. It will take time for these kind of conversations to take place."
In his house, which is becoming increasingly crowded, the mokhtar also seems hopeful, but for very different reasons.
"Iran is very concerned with Yemen," he muses. "One of the good things about the deal is that before it, Saudi [Arabia] was in one position; now, it is in another. So the situation is looking good for us. There is no one but Bashar in Syria. Things are changing on the ground. With this cooperation between Iran and the US, Iran will become the police of the Gulf. And that will affect us, of course."
The old man, who has been quietly listening to the conversation, jumps in suddenly.
"Let's talk about this like a stock market," he croaks. "Today, as Shia, our stock is rising. We won't look back."
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