The Beirut explosions on August 4, resulting from 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate igniting along with other explosive materials present in far lesser quantity in a warehouse, left more than 200 dead, dozens missing and around 300,000 homeless.
The explosions raised global concern and empathy for Lebanon. Importantly, the explosions resulted in Lebanon shifting from a failed state to a devastated one devoid of basic state functions. The country’s president rejected calls for an international investigation. The eastern Mediterranean state has been hostage to its geography and has also faced continuous internal religious discord since its inception.
Though the recently formed coalition government was quick to resign, the president did not. President Michel Aoun has little political capital and largely depends on Hezbollah and Iran. The Lebanese people in the aftermath of the explosions have blamed the political elite and Hezbollah for the tragic events, and also accuse them of corruption, inefficiency and polarizing Lebanese society.
Iran and France were extremely anxious following the explosions. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for ‘patience,’ while assuring Lebanon of Tehran’s full support. Iranian social media was full of photos showing Beirut’s devastated port along with conspiracy theories blaming the tragic events on Daesh, Israel, and the United States. Iran expressed its solidarity with the Lebanese people by lighting up Azadi Tower in Tehran in the colors of the Lebanese flag.
French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut immediately, and offered French support. Iran’s Kayhan daily newspaper said quite cynically that Macron’s visit was an attempt by France to “weaken the Lebanese resistance.” France hosting an international donor conference to raise 300 million euros for Lebanon was called a “bluff.” Of course, Tehran did not attend the fund-raising event. The state-run Kayhan’s editor-in-chief Hossein Shariatmadari told AFP News, “In the name of Israel, Macron has sent a message to the Lebanese people that if they continue to resist and support Hezbollah, they will face another catastrophic event of this type.” Iran’s stuck to its standard line, “If they are honest, they should lift sanctions against the Lebanese government and people.”
President Michel Aoun was the person who elevated Hezbollah to a pre-eminent position in Lebanese politics in 2006 with the signing of an MoU in a bid to strengthen his position. In return for accepting the rights of Lebanon’s Christians, Hezbollah was catapulted into mainstream Lebanese politics, a disastrous move, which would have dire consequences for the rest of the nation.
Today, Hezbollah is not only a state within a state but is also critical for Iran to implement its stratagem across the globe and not just in the Middle East. It has a presence in a vast number of countries, with its footprints visible in Malaysia, Venezuela, Denmark, and South Africa. Beirut port has been used by Hezbollah to import dual-use technology, with it eventually transferred to Iran, mostly by air. Also, Hezbollah operatives are able to obtain foreign visas to carry out IRGC assigned tasks. From registering companies to evade sanctions to obtaining foreign passports for Iranian, Syrian and Pakistani operatives, the Lebanese militant group is involved in almost everything that is illegal and unprincipled.
Over the past few years, Hezbollah has been facing some serious challenges. Israel has been routinely pre-empting its missile transfers from Iran via Syrian soil. Hezbollah’s over-stretched geographical presence in the Middle East, ranging from Lebanon to Syria and Yemen, has become harder to manage. The Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran have limited its financial transfers to the transnational militia. After the Beirut explosions, Hezbollah will need a large sum of money to spend on welfare projects to maintain its support base in the country. On August 14, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged the sentiments of the protestors who hanged his effigy in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square before burning it. In addition to #Prepare_the_Gallows trending on Twitter, protest banners were emblazoned with insults against him and Hezbollah. Nasrallah termed them as “hurtful words, the hurtful practices.” He told his supporters, “Hold onto that anger. We will need that anger someday, to end once and for all the attempts to drag the country to civil war.”
Taking note of Hezbollah’s threatening tone and Iran’s aggressively defiant rhetoric, Macron warned Rouhani in a phone call, asking him to keep Iran out of Lebanon. Macron was quoted as saying that it is essential “for all the powers concerned … to avoid any outside interference and to support the putting in place of a government that can manage the emergency.”
David Hale, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs, also visited Beirut with a stern warning that there will be no further assistance without political reforms, including the restoration of the state’s writ over the country’s ports and borders. It is no secret that Hezbollah can move goods and people across Lebanon’s land, air and maritime borders, using its own networks.
The investigation into the explosions, which is likely to take some time and be inconclusive, is being conducted by the Lebanese authorities along with French and American investigators. It is not possible that ammonium nitrate was stored at Beirut port without Hezbollah’s knowledge. In 2017, Hassan Nasrallah explicitly threatened to destroy Israel by causing a massive explosion in the port of Haifa using ammonia tanks. He said the explosion would be like a “nuclear” explosion. Wikileaks revealed that Hezbollah had tried in 2009 and later to acquire ammonium nitrate from Syria.
While the country’s COVID-19 profile is worsening by the day, Iran is faced with serious multiple challenges ahead, namely the upcoming UN- backed tribunal’s verdict on Rafik Hariri’s murder possibly implicating Hezbollah, an extension of the UN arms embargo, the United States invoking snapback sanctions and the crisis worsening in Lebanon. With Tel Aviv winning recognition from the UAE, Tehran’s woes are worsening in an unprecedented manner. At such a crucial time, Hezbollah cannot be left devoid of funds and arms. The Beirut explosions are the beginning of a slow but continuous chain reaction against Iran and Hezbollah. Tehran will have to brace itself for the ramifications.
Rasanah International Institute for Iranian Studies is a non-profit Saudi think tank. This article first appeared on their website.