With Syria in turmoil, little Lebanon remains in limbo

Five years into the Syrian crisis and with an all-out war on its doorstep, Lebanon is experiencing ever-worsening repercussions of its neighbour’s collapse. Yet the small country remains resilient, despite the influx of a million Syrian refugees, the regional turmoil, current tensions over a vacant presidency, and the fact that its institutions are barely functioning. It is therefore a small miracle that Lebanon’s relative peace in a turbulent Middle East has so far been maintained amid its near-total dysfunction, or that large-scale protests did not erupt sooner to lament the country’s many farces and absurdities. This article assesses how Lebanon has been able to contain and deter some of the deep-rooted problems that the Syrian war has made worse.

Lebanon’s existence is based on a sensitive balance of ethno-sectarian ambitions, which have clashed on several occasions, most famously during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war (1975-1990). Decades of conflicts and political paralysis have created a ripe environment for violence to spread. Existing security apparatuses – namely the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) – were stretched to the limit prior to the conflict and are still outmatched against the Hezbollah movement. [1]

Sides and factions changed numerous times; intra-sectarian violence was as common as inter-sectarian violence, as sectarian leaders attempted to consolidate power over their communities. Sectarian groups also changed allegiances due to foreign interventions, by the Syrians, Israelis and the US at points.

The 1989 Taef Agreement, brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, addressed some of these deep-seated sectarian challenges and brought an end to the fighting. Violence abated after 1990, but never disappeared and for years has been on a steady increase. Syria, whose troops first entered Lebanon in 1976 to control Palestinian forces and remained there until their withdrawal in 2005, remained in the country and de facto controlled Beirut in the post-war period. During this time, the conflict between Lebanon and Israel continued until the withdrawal of the latter in 2000, which was largely credited to the resistance military activities of Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. This transformed Hezbollah into the primary political party for Lebanon’s Shia community.

Meanwhile, the businessman who had helped broker the Taef Agreement, Rafik Hariri, rose to become Lebanon’s Prime Minister and led a process of reconstruction in the country as well as creating the first major Sunni political party in Lebanon, the Future Movement. Hariri’s vision for Lebanon as a country that would be sovereign and open to economic engagement with foreign countries on an equal basis led to tension with the Syrian regime, which regarded Hariri’s strategy as a threat to its interests in Lebanon.

The Cedar Revolution

On February 14, 2005 a bomb attack on a convoy carrying the former Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, killed him, his former economy minister, and twenty others. Popular outrage at the murders – in effect a regicide against the man synonymous with the reconstruction of post-war Beirut – unleashed the “Cedar Revolution”, forcing the involuntary withdrawal of Syrian troops after 29 years of occupation.[2]


Two weeks later, on February 28, 2005 the pro-Syrian Lebanese government resigned and called for new elections. After Syria announced an end to its military presence in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for a pro-Syrian rally to be held in Beirut on March 8. Six days later, on March 14, the anti-Syrian opposition organised a large rally, which marked a month after Hariri’s assassination. From this point, a battle for control of the Lebanese state began between the Sunni-dominated March 14 alliance and the Shia-dominated March 8 alliance and their regional and international allies.

March 8 v March 14

The March 14 alliance is largely made up from centrist Sunni Muslims with a significant number of Christians, and until August 2009, the Druze under Jumblatt. While some members had previously cooperated with Syria, by 2005 all members came to oppose Syrian influence in Lebanon and blamed Syria and its allies in Lebanon for Hariri’s assassination. Up until the Arab uprisings that began in 2010 it was closely allied with so-called ‘moderate’ Arab states and most of the Gulf States, and to Western countries, particularly France and the US.

Meanwhile, the March 8 coalition represented forces that had benefited from the Syrian occupation and continued to align with Syrian interests. This bloc was led by Hezbollah (literally “The Party of God”), a Shia organisation composed of a military branch, sociocultural institutions, and a political party.

Hezbollah Troops

Since its foundation, the movement has continued to play a consequential role in Lebanese politics. The group brought down the government of Saad Hariri, son of Rafik, in 2011. And though Hezbollah helped usher in a replacement in Prime Minister Najib Mikati, it forced his departure from office and a collapse of the government in March 2013 in a dispute over the Lebanese security forces.

Israel’s 2006 war against Hezbollah

At this time of heightened rivalry and political deadlock, Hezbollah entered a war with Israel after kidnapping two IDF soldiers on the Lebanese-Israeli border in the summer of 2006. During the two-month war, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, stated that he was going to have an open war with Israel, “whether the Lebanese wanted or not.” Nonetheless, Hezbollah managed to capitalise on the war to win hearts and minds not just all over Lebanon but also across the Arab world, as many came to regard it as the only Arab force able to stand up to Israeli aggression. After much negotiation a peace agreement came with UNSC Resolution 1701, drafted by the US, France and Israel on August 14, 2006. In the wake of the 2006 war Lebanon’s Hezbollah’s increased security role remained highly contested but it enabled Lebanon to effectively project power and influence outside its borders and against external threats.

The withdrawal of the Syrian troops and the 2005 elections disrupted the Syrian hegemony and created a new context for security politics in Lebanon. The victorious March 14 forces were able to lead a new government, but parliament was closely divided and the cabinet included representation from the March 8 opposition, including the Hezbollah movement.

Spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon

Although President Bashar al-Assad of Syria withdrew his military forces from Lebanon in 2005, Syria continued to heavily influence internal events within Lebanon. Assad was confident that the Arab uprising that began in Lebanon in March 2005 would not affect Syria. However, on March 15, 2011, just as pro-US regimes across the region were facing waves of demonstrations, a revolution erupted in Syria, this contrary to Assad’s prediction.

The peaceful phase of the revolution was brief, and soon the military crackdown by the Assad regime led to armed resistance by the opposition with the formation of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Increasingly, non-Syrian militias were to join the fight, depicting the Assad regime in Damascus as heretical and ungodly. The Syrian uprising threatened to topple the Assad regime, which, for Hezbollah, would have carried the risk of losing this important lifeline. Iran therefore summoned Hezbollah to help Assad in an attempt at crushing the Syrian opposition.

In the first months of the Syrian uprising, Hezbollah’s leadership refrained from taking a clear and decisive stance, cautiously weighing its options. After summer 2011, however, following the uprising’s increasing militarisation and some individual calls by Syria’s fragmented opposition for international protection and military intervention, Hezbollah began to prop up the regime and gradually increased its support, with a view not only to keep it alive but also to provide it with an edge.[3]

Not only has Hezbollah provided the Syrian regime momentum, it also averted its military defeat; dislodged rebels from areas adjacent to the borders; stopped further outrages against Shia Muslims; and prevented a detrimental recalibration of the regional balance of power. In the process the group has evolved at the military and political level, ultimately impacting upon its strategic outlook, capabilities and role—both in Syria as well as back home in Lebanon.

By May 2013, Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged that Hezbollah was dispatching fighters to Syria, a clear violation of the Baabda Declaration, a document outlining Lebanon’s policy of ‘disassociation’ from the conflict.


By then, Hezbollah had gained unrivalled power within Lebanon and seemed to be securing a stable political order and security position. But these soon began to unravel as the result of Hezbollah’s expanding engagement in the civil war in Syria and of growing sense of insecurity within the Lebanese Sunni community.

Hezbollah’s involvement has also heightened its rivalries and created new enemies within Syria. Because of its military role supporting Assad, it is not surprising to note that Hezbollah is seen as a key enemy by anti-Assad opposition forces. In particular, Hezbollah is especially despised and targeted by groups operating within the “Salafi-jihadist” camp. This is certainly true when it comes to groups like al Qaeda-linked Jahbat al-Nusra (JN) or Islamic State (IS): both organisations have engaged in a number of bloody clashes against Hezbollah and in both cases their military rivalry is heightened by their belief that the group and the Shia community in general is “heretical” in its interpretation of Islam.

Similarly, within Lebanon, Hezbollah’s assistance of the Syrian regime has not only fuelled political and sectarian tensions between the Shia and Sunni communities, but it has also resulted in direct violence against Nasrallah’s group and the Shia community in general. Hezbollah responded by establishing its own checkpoints and visible security patrols around Shia populations and institutions. However, these checkpoints caused tensions with non-Shia communities and Hezbollah faced criticism for claiming public authority over security in areas far from the Israeli-Lebanese border.[4]

2014 Security Plan

In response, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) launched in April 2014 a new security plan to restore the rule of law by setting up their own checkpoints and increasing raids along the Syrian-Lebanese border. Soon elements of the Lebanese security apparatus, spanning the LAF, Hezbollah and others, found themselves cooperating, despite their political divisions and historic background.[5]

Yet, despite this arrangement, the underlying problems caused by the Syrian conflict have not been resolved. A number of direct attacks against Hezbollah occurred in the past few years, including rocket attacks against the “al-Dahiye” – Hezbollah’s stronghold in southern Beirut; suicide bombings against Shia, Hezbollah and Iranian targets and operations targeting the LAF. Al Qaeda-affiliated Abdullah Azzam Brigades bombed the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November 2013 and, more recently, IS itself took responsibility for a tragic suicide bomb attack in a densely populated street of Bourj al-Barajneh – a predominantly Shia neighbourhood in Hezbollah’s southern suburb stronghold in Beirut in November 2015.[6]

The Bourj al-Barajneh bombings, killing over 40 people and wounding 200 others have highlighted the security plan’s intrinsic limitations. Its major shortcoming consists in putting the onus solely on security measures, while ignoring root causes: Sunni and Shia radicalisation, fuelled by political parties and regional sponsors; deplorable living conditions for Syrian refugees; the deteriorating socio-economic situation of Lebanese themselves; and eroding state institutions and services.

Still, the margin of action of these militant groups remains limited. They may inflict damage on Lebanon and its people, but not in a systematic, strategically meaningful way. For instance, in August 2015, IS and JN, along with smaller armed groups, attempted to take over a town in north-eastern Lebanon, but their efforts were thwarted by the Lebanese Armed Forces. Moreover, hardly a week goes by without reports of security forces announcing the arrest of a jihadi activist or the dismantling of explosive devices.

The Resistance Axis

The reasons behind Hezbollah’s ‘all-in’ approach with respect to the Syrian civil war are related to the historical strategic alliance between the Lebanese-Shia organisation and the Syrian regime; to the geo-strategic importance of preserving the so-called ‘Axis of Refusal/resistance’ as well as to the strength of the personal relationship between Nasrallah and the Assad regime. The term resistance axis (jabhat al muqawama) designates the alliance among the Islamic Republic of Iran, Syria and the strongest Arab non-state actors, Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas.

As Iran and Saudi Arabia jostle for power in the Middle East, Beirut has managed to maintain an uncomfortable balance between the two. However, the last few months the Saudis have grown understandably impatient with the fact that Lebanon, and especially its armed forces, remains under the hegemony of Hezbollah. For the first time, Riyadh is playing hardball in their dealings with Lebanon, deciding on February 19, 2016 to cancel about $4 billion worth of aid to the Lebanese army and internal forces. The aid had been offered in a bid to bolster the army and make it more able to hold its own and operate independently from Hezbollah.

Moreover, Arab Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organisation. These two developments, and other similar moves looming on the horizon, are likely to exert serious pressure on Lebanon’s economic and political stability. It may also make Lebanon less secure. Signalling its concern, the UN has called on other countries to make up the $4 billion.[7]

Political stalemate

The Syrian crisis also tore along political divides, with March 14 supporting the uprisings and their March 8 adversaries the Assad regime. Both sides view the Syrian conflict as potentially leading to a transformation in the domestic balance of power in Lebanon.

After Prime Minister Najib Mikati announced his government’s resignation in March 2013, policymaking in Beirut halted and the economy nosedived as pro- and anti-Assad factions struggled to agree on a new cabinet. The appointment of a new interim cabinet in March 2014 was in part the result of foreign patrons putting pressure on Lebanese actors—pressure that was spurred by developments on the ground in Syria.

Also, Lebanon has been without an executive head of state – a position traditionally reserved for Maronite Christians – since President Michel Suleiman’s mandate ended in May 2014. Parliament has convened since then more than 35 times without electing a new president due to the lack of a two-thirds quorum.[8]

In the past few months, however, key Lebanese political players have switched partners, undermining the two main blocs. Late 2015, in an apparent breakthrough, Future Current (FC) leader Saad Hariri struck a counterintuitive deal with Suleiman Frangieh, a Christian politician and close friend of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.[9] This would have made Frangieh president and Hariri, reportedly, prime minister.

This gambit was soon countered by another: earlier this year, Samir Geagea, the head of the Christian political party Lebanese Forces, who had been a candidate for the post, endorsed the candidacy of his greatest rival, Michel Aoun, the 80-year-old leader of the Free Patriotic Movement. The surprise announcement marked a rare show of unity in a Christian community riven by divisions for decades.[10]

Both leaders continue to have deeply divergent political postures, both internally and concerning the region. Aoun’s alliance with Hezbollah has grown stronger over the years; he has supported Assad in the Syrian conflict and built close ties with Iran; he is also a harsh critic of the Future Current (FC) and Saudi Arabia. On the other side, Geagea remains a visceral opponent of Hezbollah, Damascus and Iran, and has forged important ties with Riyadh.

Trash collection crisis

Meanwhile, Lebanese citizens have been mired in their own filth since July 2015, when the country’s main landfill closed its gates, without providing an alternative. The protest campaign “You Stink”, led by youth and civil society activists who, being opposed to politicians, claim to be ‘non-political’, pointed the finger at the politicians, who failed to find new disposal options despite nearly a year’s warning.[11]


These activists saw the piles of rubbish as symptomatic of the failure not only of the political class but also of the Lebanese political system. The peaceful protests turned violent by late September and continued throughout the following months amid enduring discontent over the internal political stalemate.

Removal of garbage from the Beirut suburbs began on March 19, 2016 after the goverment approved an emergency plan to temporarily reopen the Naameh landfill.


Lebanon has one of the weakest governments in the entire Middle East, yet it has managed to subvert popular demands for reform more effectively than virtually all of the surrounding Arab states. Nonetheless, a growing number of Lebanese are fed up with the rules of the game in their country: sectarian, patron-based politics and a culture of impunity for elite corruption have left little space for good governance.

In short, the current crisis is the product of the accelerating erosion of state structures, growing social dislocation and displacement, but also communal consolidation and de facto devolution of power to militias. These trends are profoundly reshaping the fragmented Lebanese society, economy and polities, the particular dynamics of which largely are eclipsed by political actors’ single-minded focus on the terrorist threat, the reflexive responses which are exacerbating, not alleviating, the underlying causes.

Although the Assad regime in Damascus is consolidating military gains on the ground, an outright regime victory remains unlikely. However, should the regime emerge victorious, the prospect of widespread renewed conflict in Lebanon could diminish, particularly if Hezbollah withdraws from Syria, removing a major impetus of sectarian violence in Lebanon.

From delayed parliamentary and presidential elections to protests about uncollected garbage, Lebanon remains in limbo. Fortunately for the Lebanese, the country has lost its status as the prime locus of proxy and sectarian wars in the region. In the meantime, Lebanon has no choice but to provide shelter for over one million Syrian refugees.


[1] YOUNG, W., STEBBINS, D., FREDERICK, B.A. & AL-SHAHERY, O. (2014). “Spillover from the Conflict in Syria: An Assessment of the Factors that Aid and Impede the Spread of Violence”. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, p. 29.

[2] GARDNER, D. “Ten years on, Hariri’s murder has reshaped Lebanon’s landscape”, Financial Times, February 16th, 2015, p. 4.

[3] MOHNS, E. & BANK, A. “Syrian Revolt Fallout: End of the Resistance Axis?”, Middle East Policy Council, Fall 2012, Vol. 19, No. 3.

[4] International Crisis Group. “Lebanon’s Hizbollah Turns Eastward to Syria”. Retrieved March 25th, 2016 from International Crisis Group: http://www.crisisgroup.org/en/regions/middle-east-north-africa/syria-lebanon/lebanon/153-lebanon-s-hizbollah-turns-eastward-to-syria.aspx.

[5] “Lebanese Army launches Bekaa Valley security plan”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from The Daily Star Lebanon: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Apr-11/252980-lebanese-army-launches-bekaa-valley-security-plan.ashx#axzz33V7khACX & KHATIB, L. “Regional Spillover: Lebanon and the Syrian Conflict”, Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Carnegie Middle East Center: http://carnegie-mec.org/publications/?fa=55829.

[6] BERTI, B. “The Syrian Civil War and its Consequences for Hezbollah”, Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from ISN ETH Zurich: http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Articles/Detail/?id=195591.

[7] “When elephants battle”, Retrieved April 1st, 2016 from The Economist: http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21693898-little-guy-gets-hurt-saudi-arabia-and-iran-squabble-over-lebanon.

[8] SAAB, B.Y. “Back to Lebanon’s Future: The Political Revival of the Country’s Christians”, Retrieved April 1st, 2016 from Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/lebanon/2016-01-26/back-lebanons-future.

[9] PERRY, T. & BASSAM, L. “In unexpected twist, Assad ally may be Lebanon’s next president”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-lebanon-presidency-ins-idUSKBN0TJ26620151130.

[10] PERRY, T. “Geagea reshapes Lebanese politics, backs rival Aoun”. Retrieved March 30th, 2016 from Reuters: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-lebanon-idUSKCN0UW24V.

[11] SOLOMON, E. “Lebanon rubbish crisis: a pungent symbol of political inaction”. Retrieved March 22nd, 2016 from Financial Times: http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/3aa1fc0c-3752-11e5-bdbb-35e55cbae175.html#axzz41lN4eDax.


Regional Turmoil in the Gulf: Iranian Perspectives

After years of hard negotiations, Iran and six world powers reached a comprehensive long-term deal on Iran’s nuclear programme in July 2015, marking a rare diplomatic success in the Middle East. Moderates and reformists hoped that the nuclear accord would rehabilitate Iran’s international image and allow Tehran to be a regional economic player and force for stability. Israel, among other nations, claimed the agreement was a mistake that would allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons and throw its weight around. Six months later, Iranian leaders find themselves mired in a new diplomatic row, after Saudi Arabia cut ties with Iran, following the execution of the prominent Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the subsequent setting ablaze of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, and Riyadh’s expulsion of Iranian diplomats early January.


Saudi Arabia has severed diplomatic ties with Iran, as an escalating war of words between the two regional foes threatened to deepen the ongoing proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. Saudi authorities carried out the largest mass execution in the country since 1980, putting 47 men to death on 2 January 2016. All of the men were convicted on terrorism charges, and most were members of al-Qaeda.

According to data collected by Amnesty International, at least 151 people were executed in Saudi Arabia between January and November 2015, while Human Rights Watch recorded 158 in total during the year.

Riyadh’s decision to execute the outspoken Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, an opponent of the ruling dynasty who had demanded greater rights for the Shiiite minority, comes at a time when the regime led by King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud is under pressure. Earlier, Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced that the decline in oil revenues would force a painful overhaul of subsidised energy, education and health care Riyadh provides its citizens.

(c) AP
Demonstrators in Iran protested the executions in Saudi Arabia ( Associated Press)

Relations deteriorated even further on 7 January 2016 as Iranian officials in Tehran severed all commercial ties with Riyadh and accused Saudi jets of attacking its embassy in Yemen’s capital Sanaa.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is still considered a close ally by the west — the leader of a broad Sunni alliance, a pivotal player in any plan to end the civil war in Syria and a vital intelligence collaborator in the fight against jihadism.

The rupture between both countries also comes at a delicate moment in the fledgling effort to launch peace talks late January in Geneva between the Syrian regime of President Assad and opposition representatives. Furthermore, the recent developments could affect countries ranging from Lebanon to Iraq and would make it even harder to mount an effective international military coalition against Islamic State (IS).[1]

In a bid to prevent further deepening of the  crisis, it will be up to Washington and Moscow to try to shore up the diplomatic effort and limit the damage from the latest events.

The Sunni-Shia Divide

The recent rift between Iran, a predominantly Shia country, and Saudi Arabia can be traced to the Iranian revolution of 1979, which saw the “Shah of Iran” toppled and Shia religious authorities taking over, offering support and giving hope to Shia populations in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.[2]

The divide between Sunnis and Shia is the largest and oldest in the history of Islam. Members of the two sects have co-existed for centuries and share many fundamental beliefs and practices, though they differ in doctrine, ritual, law, theology and religious organisation. As of 2010, it was estimated that the overwhelming majority (87-90%) of Muslims were Sunnis; about 10-13% were Shia Muslims.

The Arab spring uprisings that began five years ago in Tunisia have further heightened Sunni-Shia tensions, and led Sunni regimes such as Saudi Arabia’s to crack down on what they see as Iran’s attempts to promote its radical Shia agenda.[3]

Despite all the fireworks, this escalation will probably not change much. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been engaged in a proxy war at various temperatures over regional order for many years, but have so far avoided direct conflict.

The continuing reverberations of the US occupation of Iraq, the Syrian civil war and the Iranian nuclear deal have far more to do with the current spike in sectarianism than some timeless essence of religious difference.[4]

The last time Saudi Arabia broke off ties with Iran, after its embassy in Tehran was stormed by protesters in 1988, it took a swing in the regional power balance in the form of Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait to heal the rift.

More recently, the Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers – Adel al-Jubeir and Mohammad Javad Zarif – held talks about Syria during a high-level meeting in New York in December 2015.

Iran’s own internal tensions are playing out in the crisis, as well.

Factional politics in Iran can be bitter and complex. The system’s overlapping republican and theological features make it difficult to plot groups along a conventional right/left spectrum. Even more baffling is the absence of effective political parties.[5]

Payam Mohseni has suggested a classification based on the theocratic-republican divide on one dimension and the economic left/right divide on the other. In today’s Iran, however, it is hard to find viable political groups that pursue leftist economic policies.[6]

The Islamic Republic’s governance system mixes popular sovereignty and religious authority. Republican features are most prominently represented by the popularly elected president and unicameral parliament. The president and 290 lawmakers are elected for four-year terms, with the former limited to two consecutive ones. A variety of theocratic bodies oversee these, foremost the Office of the Supreme Leader, which has final word on all matters of state. Selecting and theoretically overseeing the leader is the Assembly of Experts, 86 Islamic jurists.[7]

With Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei aging (he is 76 and has had prostate cancer), many wonder if the next Assembly (during its eight-year term) will choose his successor, who could reshape the Islamic Republic’s course.

President Hassan Rouhani’s competitors are concerned that he and his allies will parlay their foreign policy achievements into electoral victories.

Reformist (طلب اصالح)-conservative (کار محافظه) dichotomy

Even as presidency and legislature switched hands over three decades, the unelected institutions have prevented any faction from attaining complete dominance. Nonetheless, reformists (طلب اصالح) and conservatives ((کار محافظه) in the Iranian regime have been jockeying for influence for decades.

The reformists (طلب اصالح), bolstered since President Rouhani assumed office in 2013, hope the nuclear deal will usher in a broad economic opening, transforming a faltering, socialist-style economy into more of a capitalist one.

However, a backslash appears to be underway, promoted by Mr Rouhani’s hardline adversaries in Tehran who are deeply sceptical of the US and its allies. Ever since the nuclear accord was reached and endorsed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, the conservative (کار محافظه) bloc, including the theocratic-dominated Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), fear that social, cultural and political liberalisation will erode traditional Islamic values and weaken their political power.

Hassan_Rouhani_2Reform-minded analysts now fear that the sudden worsening in relations between the Saudi Arabia and Iran will give Iran’s hardliners grist to their mill at the expense of President Hassan Rouhani.

The future direction of Iran is likely to become clearer in February 2016 when Iran holds elections for a new majles (parliament) and Assembly of Experts.

July nuclear deal

The Iranian nuclear programme plays an outsized role in Iran’s domestic politics, uniting a broad swathe of the political spectrum. The vast majority of the Iranians see it as a matter of national pride and certification of their country’s scientific modernity. However, at the same time, the programme illustrates the dichotomy between the political factions (see above).

On 14 July 2015, after weeks of almost uninterrupted negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany), a comprehensive long-term deal on Iran’s nuclear programme was reached to limit its sensitive nuclear activities in return for the lifting of crippling sanctions.


On 21 October 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei finally endorsed the nuclear deal, albeit with nine conditions and after characterising it as flawed. Khamenei also insisted it did not signal rapprochement with the US.[8]

Ali Khamenei
(AP Photo/Office of the Supreme Leader)

Although the full agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), came under instant and ferocious attack from its opponents – mostly in the US, Iran and Israel – its defenders portrayed it as one of the most important arms control accords of modern times and a rare diplomatic success in the Middle East.[9]

Between now and “implementation day”, Iran is required to dismantle much of its nuclear programme, decommissioning two-thirds of its uranium centrifuges and selling or diluting 96% of its stockpile of enriched uranium. In return, Iran’s frozen assets will be returned and, on proof of compliance, EU energy and financial sanctions will be lifted. Oil and gas exports, severely restricted since the end of 2011, will resume and Iran will be open for investment.

On 7 January 2016, US Secretary of State John Kerry said the implementation of the deal was only days away and that Washington would continue to ensure that Iran lives up to its commitments. The landmark could usher in a new phase in the budding US-Iranian rapprochement.

Economic war

The devolution in relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran could also evolve into an economic war: together with increased US shale production, the recent spike in Saudi oil production – from 9.6 million barrels per day in November 2014 to 10.2 million barrels per day one year later – has ensured that Iran will return to a depressed global oil market.

Iran’s economy faced huge economic problems in recent years due to international sanctions imposed over Tehran’s nuclear programme. Plummeting oil prices only added to economic woes in a country with the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves. Analysts expect that Iran will flood the oil market when sanctions are lifted. Reports that Tehran dispatched a shipment of more than eleven tonnes of low-enriched uranium to Russia has renewed focus on the supply glut.

The Saudis, having their own long-term financial concerns, are very aware that Iran will be able to sell its crude unencumbered by sanctions on the international market very soon and will use all means at their disposal to make sure Iran does not recapture the market share it lost over the past four years.

In April 2015, US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew estimated that Iran’s economy was 15 to 20 percent smaller than it would have been had sanctions not been ratcheted up in 2012 and cost $160 billion in lost oil revenue alone.[10] Since 2012, Iran’s currency, the rial, has declined by more than 50 percent. Its inflation rate reached as high as 40 percent, and remains one of the highest in the world.

In an effort to woo foreign investment in the post-sanctions era, Iran put a set of new lucrative oil and gas contracts, worth more than $30bn, on the market in December 2015.

If all sanctions are be lifted by the beginning of the 2016 Iranian calendar year (March-June 2016), the World Bank estimates that real GDP should rise to 5.8 % and 6.7 % in 2016 and 2017, respectively, as oil production reaches 3.6 and 4.2 million barrels per day. 

Iran’s missiles 

In tandem with its efforts to expand its nuclear capabilities, Iran has made robust strides in developing ballistic missiles. iranian-surface-to-surface-missileThe two programmes appear to be connected, with the aim of giving Iran the capability to deliver nuclear weapons beyond its borders, though Tehran claims that its missiles are strictly defensive in nature.[11]

In December 2015, one of the most important chapters in Iran’s nuclear saga came to an end as the IAEA, UN’s nuclear watchdog, released its long-awaited report on the so-called possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program. It concluded that Iran conducted a coordinated “range of activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” prior to the end of 2003 and that some of the activities continued between 2003 and 2009.

The lifting of the UN, EU and US sanctions, agreed in the July nuclear deal, hinged on the IAEA’s findings on the issue.

Two recent Iranian ballistic missile tests by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps made clear that Tehran had no intention of obeying a UN prohibition on such launches.[12] While the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action does not prevent Iran from testing ballistic missiles, UN Resolution 1929, which remains in effect until “Implementation Day”, prohibits Tehran from the testing and developing ballistic missiles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.

According to analysts the test appears to have been motivated by domestic politics: an effort by the Supreme Leader to prove to his core constituents that the nuclear deal has not been struck from a position of weakness and for Rouhani to disprove his rivals’ allegation that he compromised Iran’s defensive capabilities.


While neither the nuclear deal nor improved economic conditions have yet to translate into large-scale political or economic changes in Iran, they have created a new mood of optimism. Iran’s 80 million population is predominately young, educated and hungry for change and opportunity.

As the streets flooded with charismatic supporters chanting “Long Live Javad Zarif” in July 2015, some households remained doubtful of the deal’s impact.

(c) Al Jazeera
(Al Jazeera)

11953179_10207628822588759_5066646973362526497_n“The larger, conservative demographic is upset with the deal, claiming it yields too much power to the west. The younger, tech savvy generation with a strong media presence is generally happy with the deal. They are excited about the prospect of exposing Iran to outside influences and modernisation.”

“Personally, I am also sceptical of its impact. Iranians are a proud people and we take pride in our nation. Although we do want to integrate ourselves in the global economy, we also really want to preserve our culture. I believe with the nuclear deal, there is potential for us to accomplish both.” – Marian Haidarali, young American academic with Iranian roots

young Iran


The recent diplomatic rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran marks an ominous start to 2016 for the Middle East. The international community should recognise how dangerous the stakes in the region have become. Reconciling Riyadh and Tehran is essential if there is to be any hope of a resolution to the civil war in Syria.

This battle is happening against the backdrop of deepening political infighting in the run-up to the February 2016 elections to parliament and the Assembly of Experts.

As the Islamic Republic struggles to balance intense factional competition for power and resources against the growing demands of its young, educated population, a realistic outcome will probably be a mix of both – a gradually liberalising yet still regionally assertive Iran.

Thomas Thielemans



[1] Dan De Luce, “Saudi-Iran Rift Threatens Syria Diplomacy”, Foreign Policy, 3 January 2016.

[2] Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlav, Shah of Iran from 1941 to 1979, maintained a pro-Western foreign policy and fostered economic development in Iran.

[3] Larbi Sadiki, “Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring: Rethinking Democratization”, Routledge, 2014; “Sunnis and Shia: Islam’s ancient schism”, BBC, 4 January 2016 & “The Sunni-Shia Divide”, Council on Foreign Relations.

[4] Marc Lynch, “Why Saudi Arabia Escalated the Middle East’s Sectarian Conflict”, Washington Post, 4 January 2016.

[5] “A realignment of Iran’s political factions underway as elections loom”, Guardian, 11 December 2015.

[6] Payam Mohseni, “Guardian Politics in Iran: A Comparative Inquiry into the Dynamics of Regime Survival”, Georgetown University, 2012.

[7] International Crisis Group, “Iran After the Nuclear Deal”, Middle East Report N°166, 15 December 2015.

[8] Thomas Erdbrink, “Backlash Against U.S. in Iran Seems to Gather Force After Nuclear Deal”, New York Times, 3 November 2015.

[9] “Iran nuclear deal reached in Vienna”, Guardian, 14 July 2015.

[10] “Remarks of Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew to The Washington Institute”, The Washington Institute, 29 April 2015.

[11] “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A net Assessment”, IISS, 7 May 2010.

[12] Reportedly, in November Iran tested another medium-range ballistic missile, which violated UN Resolution 1929, which imposes a binding ban on Tehran’s testing of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses the JCPOA and overrides 1929, does not prevent Iran from testing ballistic missiles but rather “calls upon” Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” for eight years.

[13] Philip Stephens, “The Saudi-Iran paradox that haunts the west”Financial Times, 7 January 2016.