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Now Is the Time to Force Hezbollah out of Lebanon

Without a lasting, consistent effort and a blessing from all the Lebanese — including the Shiites — Hezbollah could stick around for quite some time.

Hezbollah fighters put Lebanese and Hezbollah flags at Juroud Arsal on the Syria-Lebanon border in 2017. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Diplomatic developments have also tarnished Hezbollah’s…

Carine Hajjar

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