Iran is winning and Israel is losing. That is the startling conclusion we reach if we consider how things have changed in the Middle East in the two years since most of the WikiLeaks State Department cables about Iran’s regional difficulties were written. Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister, once a virulent critic, quietly made his pilgrimage to the Iranian capital last week. Israeli hopes of separating Syria from Iran have been dashed. Turkey, once a strong ally of Israel, is now seeking better relations with Iran and with Lebanon’s Shiites.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s visit to Iran was in part an attempt to reach out to a major foreign patron of his country’s Shiite Hezbollah Party. Hariri’s father, Rafiq, was mysteriously blown to kingdom come in 2005, and a United Nations tribunal is now rumored to be leaning toward implicating Hezbollah. Many Lebanese are terrified that the tribunal’s findings might set Kalashnikovs clattering again in Beirut, given that the Hariris are Sunni Muslims linked to Saudi Arabia, and their followers could attack Lebanese Shiites in reprisal. Lebanon, a small country of 4 million, is more than a third Shiite, but Christians and Sunni Muslims have formed the political elite for two centuries.
Hariri’s consultations with the ayatollahs in Tehran were an attempt to seek Iranian help in keeping Hezbollah militiamen in check (many Lebanese Shiites look to Iran as their external patron, just as many Sunnis look to Saudi Arabia and Christians to France and the U.S.). The talks also aimed at reconfirming Iranian pledges of economic aid to Beirut. In return, according to one anonymous Iranian source who spoke to Agence France-Presse, Hariri would throw his support behind Iran’s “development of nuclear capabilities for civilian and peaceful purposes.”
If true, it is a 180 degree turn. According to The New York Times, an August 2006 cable reports that Saad Hariri had said that “Iraq was unnecessary” but “Iran is necessary,” and that the U.S. “must be willing to go all the way if need be” to halt Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, should negotiations prove fruitless. As late as March 2008, according to another leaked cable published on the Al-Akhbar newspaper website, Lebanon’s Minister of Defense Elias Murr, a Christian, passed along advice on how the Israelis could effectively fight Hezbollah without alienating the Christian Lebanese, as Tel Aviv had with its bombing of the Christian north in 2006. (Murr now disputes the account in the cable.)
Not only has Hariri radically altered his discourse about Iran, but he has made an even more incredible turnaround regarding Iran’s best friend, Syria. In the past two years, President Michel Sleiman and Hariri have energetically sought a rapprochement with Syria, one of Hezbollah’s patrons. They sought to repair ties with Damascus that had been badly damaged by Beirut’s accusations that Syria backed the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, which had led to massive anti-Syrian demonstrations and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Hariri now says he was wrong to accuse Damascus. The growing influence in Lebanon of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad has alarmed the Obama administration.
Likewise, during the past two years, Turkey has increasingly offered Lebanon its coat strings as a rising Middle Eastern regional power. Ankara and Beirut have concluded a treaty creating a free trade zone between the two countries, which Turkey hopes to expand to Syria and Jordan. In sharp contrast to the ambivalence of Lebanon’s own Sunnis and Christians, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to Beirut on Nov. 23 and warned Israel, “If you invade Lebanon and Gaza using the most modern tanks and you destroy schools and hospitals, don’t expect us to be silent about it. We will not be silent, but will support what is right.” Erdogan also defended Hezbollah from rumors that it had itself been implicated in the elder Hariri’s assassination, saying that “no one could imagine” that the organization, which called itself Lebanon’s “spirit of resistance,” had been involved in the killing.
Turkey’s defense of Hezbollah tracked with Ankara’s improved relations with Iran itself. Turkey attempted to run interference at the United Nations Security Council for Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. When the council voted to ratchet up economic sanctions on Iran on June 9, Turkey and Brazil voted against the measure, while Lebanon abstained.
From 2005 through 2006, Iran appeared to be on the retreat in the eastern Mediterranean. Pro-Western Sunnis and Christians took over in Beirut. Syria was expelled from Lebanon and there was talk of detaching it from Iran. The powerful generals of Turkey, a NATO member and ally of Israel, were reliably anti-Iranian. Now, Hariri is a supplicant in Tehran, Syria is again influential in Beirut, and a Turkey newly comfortable with Islam has emerged as a regional power and a force for economic and diplomatic integration of Iran and Syria into the Middle East. Iran’s political breakthroughs in the region have dealt a perhaps irreparable blow to the hopes of the United States and Israel for a new anti-Iranian axis in the region that would align Iran’s Arab and other neighbors with Tel Aviv.
Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan, maintains the blog Informed Comment. His most recent book, just out in paperback, is “Engaging the Muslim World.”