Lebanon held its first parliamentary elections since 2009 on Sunday. As expected, Iran’s local representative, the terrorist group Hezbollah, was the big winner. Hezbollah, with help from the Shiite Amal party, have a virtual lock on Shiite representation. And the group has gained other parliamentary allies, granting the Hezbollah bloc a simple majority to advance the group’s dangerous domestic and regional agendas.
Of course, Hezbollah has long had a political and military stranglehold on the Lebanese state. But now, thanks to its ever-expanding military arsenal and control over pockets of territory, coupled with new parliamentary seats captured by its representatives and allies, there can be no denying that the Shiite terrorist group dominates the Lebanese state.
American policymakers attached much significance to these elections, describing them as crucial to advance two key elements of American policy in Lebanon: preserving the stability of the Lebanese state and strengthening its institutions. But as the elections show, this policy has only stabilized and strengthened the Iranian order in Lebanon, run by Hezbollah.
Even before Hezbollah won at the polls, the Lebanese government watched helplessly as Hezbollah amassed one of the largest rocket arsenals in the Middle East. In fact, the Lebanese security forces may have actually helped to facilitate it. The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), regularly coordinate and de-conflict with the Shiite terrorist group. In some cases, Hezbollah has operated alongside the LAF, indicating full cooperation.
Less discussed, but not less important, is that Lebanon is a headquarters for other elements of Iran’s regional terrorist network. It’s a fact the Lebanese interior minister openly acknowledged two years ago when he described Lebanon as “a global terrorist and security operations room.” Lebanon is currently the base for senior Hamas operative Saleh Arouri, who runs terror operations in the West Bank, and other officials from the Palestinian terrorist group.
It is a place where Qais al-Khazali, the commander of the Iraqi Shiite militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a U.S.-designated terrorist group, meets openly with Hezbollah operatives. The same goes for commanders from other deadly IRGC-run militias in Syria, like Liwaa al-Baqir.
Once again, the government in Beirut did nothing to stop this. Nor did it do anything to oust some of the other terrorist groups that target the Gulf Arab states. The Ansar Allah group in Yemen, better known as the Houthis, reportedly have been receiving training in Lebanon since at least 2010 — a fact some Hezbollah members have acknowledged publicly. The Houthis also have an office in Beirut, as well a television channel, which broadcasts Hezbollah-style propaganda.
Iran-backed terrorists have used Lebanon as a base from which to target other Gulf states, like Kuwait and Bahrain. But it certainly doesn’t end there. Just ask the Moroccans, who just last week accused Hezbollah of smuggling arms to the Polisario Front, a violent separatist group in the Western Sahara.
Lebanon’s terrorism problem isn’t going away. As the election results make painfully clear, Washington’s policy of preserving the political status quo has failed. If anything, it has absolved Lebanon of the terrorist activities conducted on its sovereign soil. Even today, our officials speak about buttressing the country’s institutions, namely the banking sector and the LAF, as a counterweight to Hezbollah. This is the only way, we are told, to weaken Hezbollah’s power.
The problem is that these institutions are hardly fighting against Iran’s network. As is the case with the LAF, they have learned to coexist with them. This, in part, explains how Hezbollah continues to dominate the country — through the threat of force, and now at the ballot box.
With the 2015 Iran nuclear deal now officially terminated, and as the Trump administration lays out its regional strategy to counter Iranian destabilization and expansionism, it is time to openly acknowledge Lebanon’s role as an operational headquarters for Iran and its ever-expanding network of proxies. The administration must now leverage U.S. aid to push the new Lebanese government to take concrete action against Iran’s terrorist network. If that fails, Washington must officially recognize Lebanon as a terrorist safe haven. There can be no doubt anymore that it is.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism-finance analyst for the US Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JSchanzer.
Tony Badran is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Tony on Twitter @AcrossTheBay.
Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.