The horrific August 4 blast in Beirut has exposed the rotting foundation of Lebanon’s political system to the world. A nation stuck in a government-led Ponzi scheme and spiraling hyperinflation was dealt another blow after the massive explosion in the Port of Beirut. The Lebanese people have taken to the street to condemn the tragedy for what it is: the result of major indifference from their government. Both the Lebanese and onlookers around the world are singling out a specific culprit: Hezbollah. Lebanon’s resident terrorist group, militia, and political party has been linked to the absurd negligence that caused the attack. More generally, as the country reaches peak frustration, the Lebanese are waking up to Hezbollah’s legacy of instability and violence in the country.
With this local and global condemnation of the terrorist organization, the U.S. seemingly has a window to encourage a free and democratic Lebanon while taking a critical step in the maximum-pressure strategy against Iran. As Iran’s favorite export, Hezbollah has always been a target for America’s defense strategy. In this moment of great weakness for the militia group, the U.S. certainly has a chance to lead a global effort to neutralize the organization.
Outside of Hezbollah’s horrific attacks, breaches of human rights, and corrupt governance, the group is a threat to the U.S. struggle with Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East. Iran’s primary foreign-policy goal is to create an “Axis of Resistance” in the region that uses Tehran as its headquarters. This explains Iran’s territorial ambitions throughout the years; just look at Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. In all these countries, Iran has either been physically present, used a proxy, or sent resources to support its own agenda — whether that meant empowering a certain politician or gaining political power for an ally.
Thwarting Iran’s regional power and its support of terrorism has been a major foreign-policy goal of the Trump administration. Its actions — the airstrike that killed Qasem Soleimani and the increasing of sanctions — show a commitment to weakening the rogue regime. Embargoes, sanctions, and airstrikes are all part of what the administration calls “maximum pressure.”
However, the administration has yet to be truly “maximum” in its approach. The U.S. needs to pursue a more regional strategy against Iran’s destabilizing behavior, given the inherently regional nature of Iran’s aspirations. The U.S. posture in the Middle East has shrunk over time, meaning that most aspects of maximum pressure are applied locally to Iran. Now, with the Islamic Republic’s favorite proxy under fire, the U.S. has a chance to hit Iran where it hurts most.
A democratic, stable Lebanon rid of Hezbollah is essential to the U.S. maximum-pressure campaign. And several reasons suggest that this may be the best time to pursue such an outcome.
For one, recent months have seen a widespread condemnation of Hezbollah in Lebanon itself. In the past, the Lebanese, regardless of sectarian identity, have excused Hezbollah’s presence as a militia and a political faction because of the social services the group provided to primarily poor Shiites in the south. The group has also always branded itself as an “anti-corruption” agent in the government and a bulwark against Israeli attack. But starting in October 2019, widespread anti-government protests throughout Lebanon, sparked by a collapsing economy, included the unthinkable: calls for Hezbollah to leave the government and go back to Iran. Hezbollah’s many years of masking itself as a Lebanese entity had come to naught.
Now, with the devastating August 4 explosion, criticism of Hezbollah has turned to outrage. The explosion, the result of irresponsible storage of ammonium nitrate (AN) in Beirut’s port, was largely blamed on government corruption. Hezbollah, however, played a special role in the catastrophe. Aside from being a part of the inept Lebanese government, the group blocked access to the area where the AN was stored for years and may even have kept it for their own purposes (Hezbollah has conducted terrorist attacks using AN in the past). The explosion exposed both the government and the group’s absolute indifference to the Lebanese people’s well-being. After all, Hezbollah’s loyalties lie primarily with Iran.
Diplomatic developments have also tarnished Hezbollah’s reputation worldwide. A U.N.-backed tribunal for the 2005 assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, implicated a Hezbollah operative in the attack.
Regional setbacks to Iran are also promising in the way of weakening the militia — any blow to Iran, its patron, is a blow to Hezbollah. The U.S.-brokered Israel–UAE agreement is a historic display of unity that undermines Iran’s anti-Israeli agenda by legitimizing Arab relations with Israel. This symbolic shift of the power balance in the Middle East is a subtle condemnation of Iran’s destabilizing behavior. This agreement has direct implications for Hezbollah, Iran’s self-proclaimed “border with Israel” and a decades-old enemy of the Jewish state.
Now there is more pressure than ever for Hezbollah to relinquish its power. Notably, Lebanese from all sects are calling for this. The rest of the world is joining in the chorus of condemnation. The U.S. just upped sanctions on Hezbollah itself.
So how exactly would the U.S. take advantage of this moment to neutralize Hezbollah? Right now, it’s unclear. Sanctions have hurt the group, but seldom lead to total capitulation. With Iranian backing and income from illicit markets, Hezbollah will find a way to survive. Any kind of armed U.S. intervention is unlikely to come about given the Trump administration’s nonconfrontational approach in the Middle East and the lingering taboo of U.S. interventionism from the Bush years.
U.N. intervention is a possibility. Recently, Axios reported that the Trump administration is threatening to veto the resolution that has kept the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) present in the country unless its mandate is broadened. The Trump administration, in conjunction with the Israelis, believes that UNIFIL needs greater jurisdiction in Hezbollah strongholds in the south and on the Israeli border, where it’s previously been blocked, and upgraded resources and weapons. There is also a U.N. Security Council mandate targeting Hezbollah that has yet to be fulfilled. U.N. Security Council resolution 1559 calls for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.”
Unfortunately, many of these approaches are long shots. The challenge in confronting Hezbollah is threefold: maintaining continuity, finding resources, and upending a deeply entrenched power balance.
Taking down Hezbollah would be a long-term, expensive process, requiring the constant presence of an outside power, such as the U.S. or some kind of coalition, according to Giselle Donnelly, a military expert at the American Enterprise Institute. “There is an opportunity” to weaken Hezbollah, Donnelly said. “It would be nice if outside powers would take interest, but that’s highly unlikely to happen.” Given the Trump administration’s more hands-off approach in the Middle East and the immense costs of such an operation, Donnelly is skeptical. “Show me someone who’s willing to put in that kind of time.” But someone would need to stick around, because Iran is willing to and has always supported Hezbollah. “The Iranians aren’t going to take that lying down,” said Donnelly. And the U.S. track record in seizing advantageous political moments in the Middle East isn’t promising: “It’s a huge opportunity, but so was the Arab Spring, which we managed not to take advantage of.”
Most of all, the balance of power in Lebanon would need to radically change. And with Hezbollah’s numerous arms throughout the country — hundreds of thousands of missiles — and the devotion of Shiites in the South, it’s unlikely that anything short of an armed conflict would dethrone the group. Ending the group’s reign would partially depend “on getting Hezbollah to get rid of its rockets and missiles, particularly the longer-range missiles,” said Donnelly. “They’re not going to go anywhere unless they’re extremely militarily weakened.”
The Lebanese people would also have to stand by their current condemnation of the confessional system that has empowered corrupt politicians and shielded Hezbollah’s actions. This is a tall order in a sectarian nation such as Lebanon. Are the Lebanese truly ready to give up their respected sectarian advocates? Donnelly doesn’t “discount that all the Lebanese are sick of their leaders who have bankrupted the country,” but noted that when the dust settles, it’s easy to default your support to a leader in your ethnic or religious group.
Seizing the moment to debilitate Hezbollah would be a huge step forward for maximum pressure. But the path to such an outcome is bumpy. Without a lasting, consistent effort from the U.S. or some kind of global coalition and a blessing from all the Lebanese — including the Shiites — Hezbollah could stick around for quite some time.