As goes Lebanon, so goes the Middle East. That's why Lebanon's democracy must not be allowed to succumb to Syrian dominance and, more ominous, the growing influence of Iran's theocracy. Yet many don't recognize just how serious the situation is. The 2005 Cedar Revolution, which restored democracy to the only Arab country that has ever truly experienced it, is in great jeopardy.
To the public eye, Lebanon's democratically elected leaders are merely locked in a contest of wills with mass demonstrations. But these protests are fueled by Hizbullah, the Shiite militia group sponsored by Iran. That makes this nothing short of a Tehran-backed coup attempt – a counterrevolution with grave consequences for the region:
•Democracy gone from Lebanon.
•Israel under increased threat.
•Middle East democracy advocates beleaguered and isolated.
•The addition of another state to the Shiite crescent, further fueling the Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq and throughout the region.
•Saudi Arabia and other friendly Arab regimes compelled to match Iran's nuclear ambitions.
In all, the domino theory would become a reality – but not in the order democracy advocates desired.
To help prevent this course of events, US officials must make clear that they are not selling out Lebanon by considering talks with Syria and Iran, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group (ISG). It's also imperative that US senators stop making "fact-finding" trips to Syria and talking with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida did last week.
How Iran fuels Hizbullah
It's worth recalling how this turn of events came about. Emboldened by what the vast majority of Shiites perceive as a "divine victory" in its war with Israel last summer, Hizbullah has become a major power broker in Lebanon. With enormous financial and military support from oil-rich Iran, Hizbullah is said to have restored its military capabilities after suffering major losses this past July.
Iran's riches are also helping Hizbullah win additional loyalty from Lebanon's Shiite underclass. With it, Hizbullah mobilizes the masses to call for increasing the opposition's share in the cabinet. Such a move would give opposition members the power to dissolve the cabinet and to block UN tribunals that would try those who assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and other democracy advocates. It would also enable them to block cabinet efforts to disarm Hizbullah, as required by two UN resolutions. If this expansion isn't granted, counterrevolutionaries threaten to demand Prime Minister Fouad Siniora's resignation or create their own shadow cabinet.
That's why it's so frustrating to hear some US news reports characterize this counterrevolution as something akin to America's civil rights movements in the 1960s. Hizbullah's supporters are wrongly labeled as poor, disenfranchised citizens trying to get their nonresponsive, non- representative government to notice them.
While many of the partcipants are poor, the counterrevolution is neither a struggle between two equally legitimate positions nor is Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah a Muslim Martin Luther King Jr. Some are fundamentalist Shiite Muslims bent on "Death to America," which they chant in rallies with fists clenched in anger. The majority of these counterrevolutionaries are mercenaries who first joined Hizbullah to get on its generous Iranian-funded payroll and then got ideologically indoctrinated.
Hizbullah has manipulated Lebanon's democracy to serve Iran's agenda. Emerging from 15 years of bloody civil war that resulted in $100 billion in total damages, the Lebanese central government has been unable to provide its people with a sufficient level of social, educational, and health services. Enter Hizbullah, with a much bigger social budget – and a highly effective recruiting campaign: Few turn down a generous monthly salary simply to stand by for calls to join destabilizing activities when Mr. Nasrallah's trumpet beckons them.
Hizbullah and its cronies have misrepresented Mr. Siniora's attempts to govern by consensus as weakness. They have also misinterpreted the ISG report, which calls for talks with Iran and Syria, as a sign of America's "need" for those countries' cooperation. They see a US "deal" in the offing that would allow them to control Lebanon.
Bush administration officials must appear on Arab media to make it clear that the US is not selling out Lebanon to Syria, as the pro-Syrians in Lebanon are suggesting. At the same time, members of Congress must halt travel to Syria right now, as that would embolden the enemies of democracy in the Middle East.
• Adib Farha is the senior policy adviser for the American Lebanese Coalition. He was an adviser to Prime Minister Siniora while Siniora was minister of finance.