The wave of protests in Lebanon has shaken the parallel universe created by Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani’s depiction of Lebanon as the bridgehead for the conquest of the Middle East by Khomeinist ideology. Pictured: Protestors in Beirut, Lebanon on October 18, 2019. (Image source: Shahen Araboghlian/Wikimedia Commons)
The way the state-controlled media in Tehran put it, the wave of protests in Lebanon is about “showing solidarity with Palestine.” Photos of a dozen people burning Israeli and American flags in Beirut come with surreal captions about “Lebanese resistance fighters” calling for jihad against “baby-killing Zionists” and the American “Great Satan.”
What is certain is that the uprising has shaken the parallel universe created by Major-General Qassem Soleimani’s Madison Avenue depiction of Lebanon as the bridgehead for the conquest of the Middle East by Khomeinist ideology. Those familiar with Tehran’s propaganda know that the mullahs regard Lebanon as their most successful attempt at empire-building, worth every cent of the billions of dollars invested there.
The Iranian media often boast that Lebanon is the only country where the Islamic Republic controls all levers of power, from the presidency to security services, passing by the Council of Ministers and parliament. More importantly, perhaps, Tehran has forged alliances with powerful figures and groups within every one of the ethnic and sectarian “families” that constitute Lebanon.
In Iraq, Iran has to contend with the presence of powerful Sunni Arab and Kurdish parties and personalities that, while prepared to accommodate Tehran, refuse to act as puppets.
In Yemen, though dependent on Tehran’s money and arms for survival, the Houthis try not to be dragged into the Khomeinist strategy of regional hegemony.
In Syria, Tehran has to contend with Bashar al-Assad and remnants of his constituency who regard the Iranian presence as no more than an evil necessity for survival.
In Gaza, Tehran owes its sporadic influence to fat checks signed for Hamas, the Palestinian branch of Muslim Brotherhood. However, ideological rivalry between Khomeinism and Ikhwanism [Muslim Brotherhood], casts a permanent shadow on relations between the two outfits. Moreover, Tehran is forced to contend with the presence of powerful rivals in Iraq, in the shape of the United States, and in Syria in the shape of Russia, and now also Turkey.
In his first press interview, headlined by the Tehran media last month, Gen. Soleimani held up Lebanon as the shining example of his success in empire-building, vocalizing the parallel universe narrative that has driven the mullahs away from reality.
The 6,000-word interview, slated as an account of the 33-day war between Israel and the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah, pursues three objectives. The first is to establish Soleimani’s image as a master strategist who could take on the powerful Israeli army and push it to the edge of destruction.
“If the 33-day war had not been stopped, the Zionist regime’s army would have disintegrated,” he asserts without pushing his tongue into his cheek.
However, why did the general decide to stop the war and thus save the Israeli army?
Soleimani claims that the architect of the ceasefire that saved the Israelis was the then Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad, aided by then US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton. Soleimani does not explain why he and his boss in Tehran, “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, agreed to a plan concocted by the Qatari sheikh and the American diplomat to save the Israeli army from the brink of disintegration.
Soleimani’s second aim is to hammer in the claim that the war forced Israel to abandon what he calls “the Ben Gurion strategy of pre-emptive war” that meant taking the Arab states to the dentist every 10 years and destroying their armies before they could attempt biting the Jewish state.
In other word, if Soleimani is to be believed, Arabs could now sleep in peace, sure that Israel will never launch pre-emptive war against them.
The irony is that in the past 18 months, Israel has carried out more than 300 attacks on Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq, causing hundreds of deaths, while Soleimani and his mercenaries maintained as low a profile as they could get away with.
Of Soleimani’s three possible aims, the most important, perhaps, is the third one.
In a nonchalant manner, he depicts Lebanon as just a piece of territory without a government of its own, its only justification being a glacis for the Islamic Republic. He speaks of his frequent comings and goings to Lebanon without ever mentioning being invited, let alone given a visa, by any Lebanese authority. Nor does he bother to say who authorized the stream of arms, including thousands of missiles, brought to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria. There is no reference to any agreement by any authority to let a foreign military unit conduct a war against a neighboring country from Lebanese territory.
As far as the running of the war is concerned, Soleimani claims a three-man committee, consisting of himself, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, and the late Imad Mughniyah. When the three-man committee could not decide a major issue, Soleimani would rush to Tehran, and on one occasion, all the way to Mash’had, to obtain instructions from Khamenei. No one talked to the Lebanese president, prime minister, defense minister, or army chief, not to mention the Lebanese man-in-the-street who was never told who started the war and why.
Unwittingly, Soleimani shows that, though it risked the lives of all Lebanese citizens regardless of sectarian differences, the war that Hezbollah triggered was designed to defeat what he claimed was “a sinister anti-Shiite plot” by the Israelis to capture 30,000 Lebanese Shiites, keep them in a camp and give their villages to non-Shiites, to change the demographic balance along the ceasefire line.
To show the alleged cowardice of non-Shiite Lebanese, Soleimani speaks of “Sunni and Christian brothers sitting in their villages, smoking hookah and drinking tea” while Hezbollah Shiites fought to destroy the “Zionist enemy”. However, lest people see that as a sectarian war, Soleimani states “under all circumstances the main protector of the Lebanese nation is Hezbollah.”
I think Soleimani is wrong to write-off Lebanon as a nation-state and reinvent it as an Iranian bridgehead. Having known Lebanon for more than half a century, I can tell him that there is such a thing as “Lebanese-ness” that transcends sectarian and political divides. The Lebanese look to the Mediterranean and the exciting possibilities of the modern world rather than the recesses of the Iranian Plateau under the mullahs with their antediluvian ideology. As a matter of taste, Lebanese-ness is closer to the beach than to the bunker.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.