A Harried Hezbollah
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The past 72 hours in Lebanon have been the most dramatic in over a year, with Hezbollah emerging as the biggest loser. The judge investigating the August 4, 2020, explosion at Beirut Port, Tareq Bitar, has reopened his investigation after political figures had tried to derail his efforts, fearing the results would point an accusatory finger at them. This came as the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned a Lebanese moneychanger on January 24 for alleged financial ties with Hezbollah, and at a moment when Lebanon faces a snowballing fiscal crisis amid a political void as parliament remains unable to elect a president.
Hezbollah’s mindset will lead it to interpret these events as an attempt by the United States to increase pressure on the party ahead of the presidential election, as tensions are rising between Iran and Washington, as well as among their respective regional allies. Nevertheless, the party’s options remain limited given Lebanon’s precarious position and Hezbollah’s inability to impose unity even among its allies over whom they should elect as president.
Hezbollah’s most urgent challenge is dealing with Bitar. On January 23, the magistrate surprised the political class by resuming his investigation, after he had been compelled to suspend it when political figures filed requests for dismissal as well as several lawsuits against him. Bitar also reportedly initiated legal proceedings against two top security officials, Abbas Ibrahim, the head of the General Security Directorate, and Tony Saliba, the head of the State Security Directorate. Ibrahim is a major Hezbollah ally and a well-connected interlocutor with regional and Western states on regional security issues. Moreover, Ibrahim’s term is ending in two months, and legal charges against him would complicate his reappointment, not to mention what it would do for his political ambitions.
Although Bitar leads a Lebanese investigation, Hezbollah has accused him of acting on Washington’s orders. A week before resuming his investigation, Bitar met a French judiciary delegation, causing speculation that he had responded to a French effort to revive his investigation. The judiciary has been divided over Bitar’s moves, however, with the public prosecutor, Ghassan Uwaydat, informing the magistrate that his investigation remained suspended. This means the Judicial Police, which Uwaydat controls, will not implement Bitar’s decisions. That Bitar has also taken legal action against the prosecutor has hardly helped Uwaydat’s credibility.
Hezbollah will be more concerned with the political implications of what is taking place. The absence of a president and functioning cabinet is already increasing sectarian tensions. In Lebanon’s power-sharing system, the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Moreover, a majority of the port explosion’s victims were Christians, so all legal steps against certain officials risk offending their sectarian backers, while the absence of progress in the investigation could be seen as targeting Christians.
Hezbollah’s longstanding opposition to the Bitar investigation could be costly in this regard. The party’s leading Christian ally is the Free Patriotic Movement, which has sought to publicly portray itself as supportive of the investigation. The fact that the two sides officially differ over Bitar’s work could damage their already fragile alliance, which has suffered because of differences over the presidency.
In October 2021, Hezbollah and its allies succeeded in crippling Bitar’s investigation after organizing street protests against the magistrate. These led to armed clashes in the Tayyouneh sector of Beirut, leaving several people dead or injured. Following the incident, senior politicians targeted by Bitar filed lawsuits against him, forcing the magistrate to pause his investigation. However, what the protests mainly underlined was that Hezbollah had something to fear from Bitar’s work, amid a widespread belief in Lebanon that the party was responsible for storing the ammonium nitrate that caused the blast at the port, with the complicity of numerous politicians and security figures.
Today, because of the presidential vacuum, Hezbollah is in a weaker position against Bitar. Any move against him would further exacerbate sectarian tensions, as communities are increasingly taking security into their own hands given the weakening of state institutions. Already, the party’s statements on the presidential election are stirring strong reactions. Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, has suggested that Lebanon’s political order should be changed if Hezbollah imposes the president it wants. Hezbollah has accused Geagea of seeking partition, which he has denied. But these sentiments are hardly limited to Geagea. For example, Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Rai has accused Hezbollah, without naming the party, of intentionally seeking to create a vacuum in the senior positions in the state reserved for the Maronite community, starting with the presidency.
In spite of these strains, Hezbollah is standing its ground. Last week, the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, reiterated the organization’s criteria for a new president. It was seeking “a brave man” who didn’t fear the United States and would be able to resist pressure from Washington. For Nasrallah, Lebanon needs a resilient political class and economy as well. His conditions suggested that he would not approve of the election of the commander of the armed forces, Joseph Aoun, whom many see as a potential compromise candidate, because he is regarded as being close to Washington. Hezbollah’s preferred candidate is Suleiman Franjieh, a former parliamentarian, minister, and staunch ally of Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.
For now, Hezbollah is holding on to Franjieh, seeking to gather enough support in parliament for his candidacy. However, time is running out, not only because of the difficulties caused by the port investigation but also Lebanon’s worsening economic and fiscal crisis. Within two weeks, the Lebanese pound lost over a fifth of its value, falling from LP42,000 to the dollar in early January, to LP55,000 today.
There are two reasons why Hezbollah sees the latest developments as a U.S. escalation, beyond the party’s recurring narrative of an American blockade of Lebanon. First, the U.S. Treasury’s sanctioning of a Lebanese moneychanger raised fears that the next round of sanctions could target money transfer firms, which partially replaced banks after the financial crisis. This would have a detrimental impact on the pound’s exchange rate as well as Lebanon’s economy in general.
Second, amid signs that the U.S. Federal Reserve is looking much more closely at dollar transfers from Iraq to countries such as Lebanon, Iran, Syria, and Yemen, the Iraqi dinar has plummeted. The Fed is seeking to make Iraq compliant with the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) international electronic transfer system, barring which many transfers will continue to be blocked. An Iraqi economist estimated that wire transfers from the United States had declined from $240 million to $22 million per day. For Hezbollah, which sees Iraq as a vital corner on Iran’s map of regional influence, such measures represent a threat, and they resonate with Lebanon’s fiscal crisis.
Iran’s allies have limited options in the face of such U.S. actions, beyond military escalations. The situation in Iraq might still be weathered. However, in Lebanon the reality is more complicated, given the presidential vacuum, sectarian tensions, and economic turmoil. Hezbollah will have to reach for a new toolkit to deal with these issues, as neither stalling for time nor engaging in violence will yield results.