On Oct. 31, the Lebanese parliament elected Hezbollah-ally Gen. Michel Aoun as president, ending a two-year vacancy in the country’s top position. Although the parliament—long infamous for sectarian strife—successfully ended the political stalemate, the election of Aoun demonstrates the immense influence Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah maintain over the tiny country.
The Political Situation in Lebanon
The previous president, former Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) Chief of Staff Gen. Michel Suleiman, left office in May 2014. For over two years, the Lebanese legislature was unable to appoint a successor due to Hezbollah-led efforts to stymie the election process and ensure the ascendance of its preferred candidate, Michel Aoun.
Aoun became Lebanon’s president after securing 83 votes in the 128-seat parliament. Of interest, according to a 1942 power-sharing agreement known as the National Pact, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister (appointed by the president) a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim.
Opposition to Aoun’s candidacy was led by Sa’ad al-Hariri, the Sunni leader of the Saudi-backed “March 14 Alliance.” Over time, al-Hariri had been weakened by financial and political problems, as well as by lackluster support from Saudi Arabia. As a result, after 45 failed attempts to elect a new president, al-Hariri dropped his opposition to Aoun, ensuring that Hezbollah’s preferred candidate had enough votes to win the presidency. Al-Hariri’s reversal is stunning, considering that Hezbollah was found to be directly responsible for the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri.
In exchange for supporting Aoun, al-Hariri was appointed prime minister on Nov. 3. Hezbollah will now hold significant sway over the three most important figures within the Lebanese government: the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament.
Michel Aoun’s Longtime Support for Hezbollah
Aoun’s Maronite party, the Free Patriotic Movement, has been closely aligned with Hezbollah since 2006 when Aoun and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah signed a memorandum of understanding establishing the “March 8 Alliance”—the political counterweight to al-Hariri’s “March 14 Alliance.”
Since then, Aoun supported Hezbollah's 2006 war against Israel, backed its 2008 Beirut takeover and endorsed the group's intervention in Syria’s civil war. He also opposes disarming Hezbollah—in direct violation of United Nations Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701; of particular concern, he may decide to use his new authority to strengthen ties between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah's militia.
As president, Aoun will likely depend on the support of Hezbollah to remain in power, and is unlikely to make any decision that contradicts the group’s wishes.
Ali Akbar Velayati, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s top foreign policy adviser, said: “The election of Michel Aoun as president shows new support for the Islamic resistance. This is surely a victory for Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of [Hezbollah and] Islamic Resistance in Lebanon.”
The Way Forward for the United States
While the United States commended the Lebanese government for resolving the two-year political impasse, American leadership cannot ignore the fact that Aoun’s election was a win for its adversaries. As the hand-picked candidate of Iran and Hezbollah begins his presidency, the United States should increase pressure on Hezbollah and ramp up its efforts to halt the flow of funds and weapons to the terrorist organization.
America should also make clear to President Aoun that it expects him to support international efforts to restrain and disarm Hezbollah, as well as to prevent any cooperation between the group and the LAF. This is an increasingly urgent matter given Iran’s bolstered influence in the country post-election. And to ensure the United States continues to meet its objectives in Lebanon, Washington should review the support it provides Beirut.
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