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Can Saudi and Iran play ball in Lebanon?

Joyce Karam

Published: Updated:

If Lebanon is the bellwether for Middle East politics then the news of a potential breakthrough in its presidential vote will test regional diplomacy and the potential for Saudi-Iranian detente in Beirut and beyond.

The proposed deal to nominate pro-Hezbollah leader Suleiman Franjieh as president and Saudi Arabia’s ally Saad Hariri as prime minister, cannot materialize without the blessing of Riyadh and Tehran, the two most influential outside players in the Lebanese arena.

After more than 550 days of presidential void, Lebanon could be weeks away from electing a new president. Lebanese sources following the negotiations are cautiously optimistic about the agreement, while warning it is “not a done deal” and could be torpedoed from within Lebanon. Key rivals of Franjieh in the Lebanese Christian base – namely leaders Michel Aoun and Samir Gaagaa – are still opposed to it, while others within Hariri’s own party would like to see it fail.

Saudi Arabia and Iran dancing tango in Lebanon would be significant if it succeeds, and could mark a beginning of a larger conversation.

Joyce Karam

However, the increasing cost of political and security paralysis in Lebanon, and the recognition among opposing camps of the need to step away from the Syrian abyss is the biggest advantage playing in favor of the deal.

Lebanon as testing ground

The deal itself came into the open two weeks ago following Hariri’s meeting with Franjieh in Paris. While the recipe for the deal is purely locally driven by Hariri and Franjieh themselves, it won’t materialize without Saudi and Iranian acquiescence. Such was the case when Lebanon formed a new government in February 2014, with the participation of both the Hezbollah and Hariri camps.

Saudi Arabia and Iran dancing tango in Lebanon would be significant if it succeeds, and could mark a beginning of a larger conversation between the two in places like Syria and Yemen, despite the lower odds of success there. In Lebanon, both Saudi and Iran agree on the need to avert a bigger crisis and are prioritizing stability over political gains in the interim. Maintaining cold peace in Beirut while securing their influence could drive both countries into accepting the deal. In this context, Franjieh would be a safety net for Hezbollah, while Hariri remains Riyadh’s closest ally.

The Franjieh-Hariri deal is also driven by mutual concern over the security situation and paralysis in Beirut, echoed by regional players and the United States. It comes on the heels of ISIS’ largest bombing in the Lebanese capital last month, targeting mostly Shiites. The reach of ISIS inside Beirut, and the sectarian polarization will only fester amidst the presidential void, and stagnation of legislative process.

Following the Beirut bombing, a softer tone was heard from Hezbollah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah, pledging dialogue and calling for “a comprehensive political settlement on various levels within the existing frameworks and based on the Taif agreement.” Accepting Taif, which was negotiated in Saudi in 1989, is a key move from Hezbollah to extend a hand to its political rivals.

From the Hariri side, the absence of a strong Sunni leadership on the helm of government, is backfiring on his party’s popularity and undermining the moderates in the community. Assuming the premiership while giving his rivals the presidency could help Hariri restore some of his lost influence, and ease sectarian tensions.

Franjieh’s resume

If Franjieh makes it as President with a nod from Lebanon’s Walid Jumblatt, it would be a repeat of history when his grandfather ascended to the presidency in 1970 with the support of Walid’s father, Kamal Jumblatt. Like other politicians in Lebanon, an instinct for survival marks Franjieh’s interrupted rise in politics, from the moment his parents and sister were massacred in 1978 while he was in boarding school at age 13, until his nomination to the highest Christian office.

Following the assassination, his grandfather took him under his wings and helped Franjieh launch his political career, fighting during the war and establishing the “Marada” militia. His grandfather’s role was also instrumental in inviting the Syrian army into Lebanon in 1976, and until it was forced out in 2005 following the Hariri assassination.

The Franjieh-Assad family ties go back as far as 1957. The two families have deep personal and business ties and Suleiman Franjieh is not shy about it. He calls Syrian President Bashar Assad "a brother", and has been a solid ally of Hezbollah and Iran since the 1980s. Following the 2006 war, Franjieh famously said that his generation should “take pride in living in the days of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah”. He also accused former Lebanese President Michel Suleiman of treachery, for turning against Hezbollah in last two years in office. Franjieh told MTV that Michel Suleiman interjected arms shipments to Hezbollah, and betrayed the party by going against its intervention in Syria.

Franjieh himself is promising unwavering support for Hezbollah, calling its military role in Syria “a necessity to counter the existential threat facing the Christians.” While he still refers to Assad as a “friend”, Franjieh has said that “whatever happens in Syria is not up to me or any Lebanese president.” It is fair to expect however, that if Franjieh is voted as president he would go far in defending Hezbollah and its intervention in Syria. His commitment to keep arms flowing to the party and his popularity amongst the Shia of Lebanon, would assure Hezbollah in the event that his forces leave Syria or if Assad is out of power. Franjieh’s defiant Christian rhetoric, calling to arm the minority if ISIS finds its way to Lebanon, and to increase the powers of the presidency, will be used to portray him as a “strong president” for the minority’s highest office in Lebanon.

If the Franjieh-Hariri deal materializes in the weeks to come, it could shake up the internal Lebanese debate, and provide testing ground for a Saudi and Iranian detente. It is however a gamble for all sides involved, and could backfire if it ends up dragging Lebanon deeper into the Syrian war, inflaming sectarian tensions, or boosting Assad and derailing a settlement in Damascus.

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Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.