Iran announced Tuesday that it will provide military equipment to the Lebanese Army to enable it to meet the growing threat posed by the Islamic State.
This unprecedented support, on which Tehran has not specified neither the type nor the amount seems to follow the moves by Saudi Arabia and the United States, and highlights the rejection of the jihadist group that undoubtedly affects every country in the Middle East.
At the same time, it is potentially explosive to the risk that Tehran and Riyadh, aspirants to regional hegemony, attempt to gain control of the Lebanese Army after years of supporting rival militias.
“The Islamic Republic has decided to provide military aid to the Lebanese army to help in their heroic struggle against terrorism,” said the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, Ali Shamkhani, as reported by the Iranian state news agency Irna.
Shamkhani, who had just met with Lebanese Prime Minister Tamam Salam, did not specify what such assistance would consist of, but stressed that it would be completed once General Hossein Dehqan visits Beirut.
He also said that his country has “no red line” so it refers to its support for Lebanon as a way to combat terrorism and to strengthen stability and security.
Last August, Iran was the first country to send weapons and advisers to both the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad who had called for international cooperation against jihadist advances.
“The move is part of the approach of Tehran to help not only Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS, but also to Lebanon. In fact, “we are witnessing a radical change in the Levantine board,” said Theodore Karasik, of the Institute for Near East and Military Analysis of the Gulf in Dubai. “We have to see how they react –Washington and Riyadh- since they are already providing assistance to the Lebanese army,” he added.
The danger lies in the fragile sectarian balance in Lebanon. The country is divided between supporters of Iran and the regime in Damascus. There is Hezbollah with the backing of the majority of the Shia community, and then the mainly Sunni, but also Christian opposition, that has the support of Saudi Arabia and the USA.
On 2 August, Lebanon suffered its worst crisis since the beginning of the conflict when hundreds of jihadists of the Islamic State and the Al Nusra Front attacked several military positions in the Lebanese town of Ersal, 17 kilometers from the Syrian border.
The army chief General Jean Kahwaji, asked for help. Although it has 45,000 soldiers, the Hezbollah militia, which has between 5,000 and 10,000 men, has better weapons, courtesy of its Iranian ally.
A week later, the leader of the Fourteenth March Coalition, Sunni Saad Hariri, returned to Lebanon after three years of political exile and supported by 800 billion euros from Saudi Arabia in the portfolio to invest in the Army. Saudi Arabia was already committed in 2013 to provide 2,400 million euros.
Now Shamkhani’s announcement seems to confirm a change of strategy in Lebanon as regional powers would try not only to deal with ISIS, but also to control the armed forces, to which the United States has so far provided only light weapons.
“Riyadh intends to gain control within the Lebanese Army. Tehran is in a stronger position, “ensuring its influence” says Hassan Hassan, from the Delma Research Institute in Abu Dhabi.
In his view, however, “it is good news that the message of both is to support the Lebanese institutions as neutrally as possible against terrorism, although it is expected that such support will continue to be offered parallel to their respective faiths.”