Nasrallah, Hariri, and their roles in the regional crisis

Nasrallah, Hariri, and their roles in the regional crisis
Analysis: Though they are on opposite sides of the regional crisis, Lebanon's Saad al-Hariri and Hassan Nasrallah are keen to avoid an escalation of political tension in Lebanon.
5 min read
19 April, 2015
Nasrallah and Hariri in 2006 [Hassan Ibrahim]

A bizarre calm has descended on the Lebanese domestic scene.

Although the divide among the Lebanese has worsened, the decision to spare the country an explosion is still valid, with many indications showing it may not last long.

Meanwhile, two political leaders in Lebanon continue to exchange verbal blows on a regular basis. Ever since the "Decisive Storm" Operation kicked off, Future Movement leader Saad al-Hariri seemed like a key player in the Saudi-led alliance, as he was the first Arab politician to openly back up the operation in the media. In a 30-minute telephone conversation with al-Arabiya on 30 March, Hariri voiced his support for the operation, three hours after the airstrikes began.

On the opposite front stands Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah who spearheaded the opposite camp. On the second day of the operation, Nasrallah devoted a speech to respond to the alliance and for an hour, Hezbollah's chief defended Iran and blasted Saudi Arabia for spearheading a coalition to launch a war on Yemen. Once again, during a live interview with the Syrian al-Ikhbariya TV, Nasrallah lashed out at Riyadh and he is expected to speak tomorrow in a ceremony organised by Hezbollah in support of the Houthis.

The differences mask the similarities

Nasrallah has grown to become the leader of the Arab Shia.

Despite the substantial differences in the speeches and reasons, Nasrallah and Hariri's appearances to the public are quite similar. For so long, Nasrallah has been serving the role of Iran's extraordinary ambassador to Lebanon, and this role appeared more clearly in the past few weeks.

Nasrallah has grown to become the leader of the Arab Shia. He was assigned by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to run some affairs pertaining to the Arab Shia population for many reasons:

First, Nasrallah is an Arab Shia cleric and descends from Prophet Muhammad's family. He is also the leader of a military movement that led a struggle against Israel and its popularity increased to a large extent after the 2006 July war.

Second, after the occupation of Iraq in 2003, Iran found trouble in dealing with some Iraqi officials and clerics for reasons mainly attributed to the longtime Persian-Arab conflict and the historical rivalry between Najaf and Qom as the two centres of Shia religious learning. Sadrist Movement leader Muqtafa al-Sadr has repeatedly expressed displeasure with the direct Iranian role in Iraq. It was later revealed that Al-Sadr welcomes Nasrallah's advice but refuses to hear anything from Iran and considers any Iranian advice a non-Arab part an interference in the Iraqi affairs. Recently, after Iran has failed to lead mediation between Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi and his predecessor Nouri Maliki, it entrusted the mission to Nasrallah.

Third, Hezbollah has launched and is still engaged in many wars which Iran has the upper hand in, particularly in Syria and Iraq. The party has even dispatched military consultants to these regions and to other countries earlier. Iran cannot afford losing many Iranian personnel and soldiers on the Syrian soil to avoid stirring up public anger at home, in addition to other reasons pertaining to the reality in the Arab countries as the falling of Iranian soldiers in Syria would be a proof on the Iran's interference in the country. For these reasons, Nasrallah has been keen on affirming that the number of Iranian fighters in Syria is below 50, a figure that is clearly contradicted by the reality on the ground.

Nasrallah has also overlooked the hundreds of Afghani recruits from the Afghani refugee camps in Iran. By dispatching non-Iranian fighters to Syria, Iran would not be held responsible by the international community and can acquit itself from the crimes taking place in Syria. It can simply blame these crimes on the Syrian regime and its army, although they were carried out by Iran's revolutionary guard officers.

Hariri has gradually turned into the "leader of Sunni moderation" in the Levant.

Hence, Nasrallah has played and continues to play a prominent role in running Iran's political discourse in Syria and Yemen. But Hezbollah's role is not confined to politics and military action, and has also gone as far as turning Beirut's southern suburb, the party's stronghold, into a haven for regional opposition groups loyal to the so-called "Iranian axis". In contrast, Hezbollah and its allies tightened measures against the Syrian opposition supporters or members in Beirut. TV channels affiliated with the Houthis or the Shiite Saudi opposition and the Bahraini Al-Wefaq opposition group aired from Beirut southern suburb. One has to say that these channels have a common source or funding and a joint editorial policy.

Rival peddlers of influence

At the peak of the Iranian expansion into Baghdad, Beirut, Damascus and Sanaa, Commander of the Qods Force Qasem Soleimani publicly wandered the streets of Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Tikrit. With the start of the Decisive Storm operation, Soleimani went back to the shadow, leaving the floor for Nasrallah.

Hariri, for his part, who has been touring many capitals to convey political messages, has gradually turned into the "leader of Sunni moderation" in the Levant. Someone in the Saudi-led coalition is convinced that there must be a symbol for the Sunni moderation in the Levant, someone to serve as a facade for this camp which wants to refute the notion that the hard-line Islamist groups represent the Sunnis in the Levant. This is the purpose of Hariri's activity in a nutshell according to Future Movement officials in Lebanon.

Some has gone as far as promoting the idea that "Saad Hariri is not a Future Movement leader or Lebanon's ex-prime minister; he is rather a region-wide leader, because a prime minister has to make concessions and thus consider the desires of this or that minister," according to another Future Movement official. Therefore, those promoting this theory prefer to see Tammam Salam or any other Sunni figure that is on good terms with Hariri and Saudi Arabia, in office.

That said, the leaders of the largest political parties in Lebanon, Nasrallah and Hariri, are playing cross-border roles, but they still insist on distancing the country from the boiling regional conflicts that could change maps of some countries. It looks like they are so determined to do so that they will successfully protect Lebanon from the storm for a long time.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.