Tehran’s proxies continue to be a regional spoiler

Originally published by the Jerusalem Post

Common thread connecting Lebanon and Iraq’s worsening turmoil is the influence of Iran.

On Tuesday, the world bore witness to utter devastation in Beirut, as a pair of massive explosions rocked the port city, killing at least 137 people and injuring more than 5,000 others. Multiple videos of the explosion show a giant cloud of smoke rising from the coastline followed by a large blast and shock waves. Buildings and structures miles away from the blast center were knocked down, foundations collapsed and windows were shattered.

Lebanon’s Interior Minister Mohammed Fahmi indicated that the blast was caused by the detonation of more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at the dock since its confiscation in 2014. The head of Beirut Port and Customs Authority reported that they had urged the judiciary on numerous occasions to sell or export the chemical stockpile, but that the judiciary failed to comply.

On Wednesday, the Lebanese government announced that those Beirut Port officials who handled the chemical would be placed under house arrest pending an investigation. Lebanon’s Supreme Defense Council promised that those found responsible for the explosion would face “maximum punishment.”

While the current focus is naturally on loss of life and locating missing persons, there are growing concerns about the explosion’s consequences on the country’s already dismal food security. Lebanon’s economy is dependent on services; it imports a lot and produces close to nothing. According to the US Agriculture Department, 80% of the country’s wheat supply is imported. Tragically, 85% of Lebanon’s grain product was stored in the now destroyed silo towers.

Lebanon’s economic crisis is entrenched in decades of systemic corruption and poor governance by the country’s political-financial elite. Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite terrorist group, has extensive military operations in the country. Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war, Hezbollah has repositioned itself as the country’s “Islamic Resistance Force,” pledging to fight against Israeli occupation. The International Institute for Strategic Studies reported in 2017 that the militia group had more than “10,000 active fighters, some 20,000 reserves, with an arsenal of small arms, tanks, drones and long-range rockets.”

In addition to its military operations, Hezbollah developed active political and social groups in Lebanon. Since 2005, party members have held cabinet positions in the Lebanese Parliament.

HEZBOLLAH’S GRIP on Beirut extends to the shadow economy it controls. According to a recent report issued by the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Hezbollah seizes between $500 million and $1 billion annually from Lebanon’s economy.

Iran’s stronghold on Lebanon’s economy has not gone unnoticed. The people of Lebanon, including disenchanted Shi’ites, took to the streets of Beirut in late 2019, protesting government corruption and foreign intervention in their polity. The protests were initially sparked by economic instability, but anti-Iranian sentiment quickly evolved. The protests attracted widespread support. Many people in Lebanon were dissatisfied with the conduct of Shi’ite political parties in the country as they are funded, radicalized and monitored by Iran.

Lebanon is not the only country in the Middle East struggling under the grip of Tehran’s proxies. Iraq’s crumbling economy and pervasive government corruption parallel Lebanon’s situation in many respects. In fact, the Lebanese anti-Iran protests in late 2019 triggered waves of organized demonstrations in Baghdad.

Iranian militias responded more violently to Iraqi protests, however, killing more than 800 demonstrators and wounding many more. This bloodshed, orchestrated by Tehran and its regional proxies, has only increased anti-Iranian sentiment in the country.

Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, does provide a glimmer of hope for the future of the country’s sovereignty. Kadhimi’s platform prioritizes removing foreign influence, including unwanted Iranian intervention, from Baghdad’s government. However, Iran has resisted the prime minister’s efforts and continues to use its local proxies to export the regime’s goals and interests.

Kata’ib Hezbollah, an Iranian-supported militia on the ground in Iraq, is preventing Iraq from acquiring the financial support it needs to prevent its already murky economic crisis from deepening further. For months, Kata’ib Hezbollah has consistently launched rockets at the US Embassy and other diplomatic sites in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone.

The United States has made countering Iranian-backed militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, a top agenda item for any US-Iraq official talks. If the prime minister fails to follow through on cutting off these militias, the US cannot consider Baghdad to be a true ally, and will likely cut off all funding to Iraq’s Defense and Interior ministries. If the US cuts off financial support, Iraq’s already weak economy may be in shambles.

The people of Lebanon and Iraq are paying the price of unwanted Iranian influence. In order to achieve true sovereignty, these countries must disassociate from the rogue regime that has forced them into such decline.

About Maya Carlin

Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy, located in Washington D.C. She is also a M.A. candidate in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at IDC Herzliya’s Lauder School of Government in Israel.