Between Good and Better: How Geagea is helping Hezbollah in choosing the next president
By: Majid Moradi
Three months ago, the Lebanese Forces Party invited me to make a speech in my capacity as researcher in Iran-Arab affairs for a forum on the international and regional ramifications of Iran’s nuclear agreement. Back then, I had a sense that the invitation to Ma’areb, the stronghold of Samir Geagea and the Lebanese Forces (where no Iranian has set foot since the Revolution), was a green light to the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Samir Geagea made a lengthy speech for Arab, European, and American diplomats, Lebanese MPs and partisan figures on the regional threats of removing Iran sanctions. However, a key phrase he said at the end overshadowed the rest of his speech: he hoped he would be proven wrong about the threats of the nuclear agreement.
As an independent observer, I touched on the impact of the nuclear agreement on Iran-Arab relations. Reminding the audience of the complicity of Arab countries with Saddam Hussein during the eight-year war with Iraq, I said that the Iranophobia project is delusional and unfounded. I emphasized that if Iran’s regional role were acknowledged, concerns regarding its behavior would be alleviated. I compared Iran’s approach with Saudi Arabia’s erratic behavior and its alignment with Israel to obstruct the nuclear negotiations in any way possible. I also referred to Iran’s role in saving Baghdad and Sulaymaniyah from the hands of ISIS.
A number of the invitees, probably from the Future Movement, explicitly objected my speech, which seemed to have taken the attendees by surprise (after all, it was a pro-Iran speech in Ma’areb). With their second-time protest, however, Samir Geagea rose and asked anyone who did not like my words to leave the place. A close friend of Geagea later told me that he had rarely done such a thing before. It seems that despite his thirty-year tense relations with Iran, Geagea did not want to send a negative message to Tehran.
The official site of the Lebanese Forces group published a report on my speech the next day to prove it was ready to hear Iran. This was the first step taken by Geagea to announce a shift in his Iran approach in which there was also a message embedded for his Lebanese and regional allies.
While I saw the conference and its afterward developments as a green light to Iran, hearing Samir Geagea's resignation from candidacy for the presidential post and announcing the Hezbollah-backed candidate Michel Aoun as his choice was quite astonishing. Geagea held a much-publicized presser to announce his support for archrival Michel Aoun, disturbing all previous calculations.
Samir Geagea’s decision to back Michel Aoun was first and foremost a counterattack against his allies in the March 14 Movement who had endorsed Suleiman Frangieh for presidency, and also an act of throwing the ball in Hezbollah’s court. Frangieh enjoys warm relations not only with Hezbollah, but also with Bashar Assad, making him a highly valuable ally for Hezbollah.
With his support for Aoun, Geagea is not only bringing various factions inside Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community closer, but also making Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement indebted to himself. On the brink of the ninth decade of life, Aoun will create a vacuum in the leadership of the FMP with his departure, a position that Geagea may like to fill.
On the other hand, Geagea’s endorsement of Aoun could convey a message to Hezbollah and its followers that, to serve the national interests of Lebanon, the leader of the Lebanese Forces makes no hesitations, hence the recent comment by Geagea that he is now inevitably in the camp of Hezbollah. To further ensure Hezbollah, Geagea has in a recent interview explicitly called Israel an enemy of Lebanon, while at the same time skirting around the issue of disarming Hezbollah, a part and parcel of every public speech by leaders of the March 14 Movement.
To make the situation further complicated, the March 14 Movement that is backing Suleiman Frangieh, is enjoying support from the Amal Movement and its leader parliament speaker Nabih Berri. Although an ally of Seyyed Hassan Nasrullah, Berri has a different candidate for presidency and categorically rejects Michel Aoun for the position.
Apart from Aoun’s personal characteristics that make it a difficult task to predict his future stance, for Nabih Berri who has been the most prominent and unwavering figure of Lebanon’s politics in the past two decades, a less known and weaker president would better serve his purposes. Walid Jumblatt, always in the shadow of Nabih Berri, is probably of the same idea.
Lebanon’s political puzzle is pretty scrambled at the moment. The unprecedented alliances speak for themselves: Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces, two diametrically opposed political forces, are endorsing Michel Aoun. Hezbollah is a strategic ally of Amal, yet the two Shia factions beg to differ over their favorite presidential candidate. Amal is aligned with March 14 Movement that supports Frangieh who is a close friend of Hezbollah and has always enjoyed warm relations with the group unlike Michel Aoun. Frangieh is a friend of Bashar Assad while March 14 is strongly against the Syrian president.
But amid all these scrambled alliances, one fact is clear and that is that the Saudis have lost the game to Iran in Lebanon. From 18 months ago, Riyadh backed Samir Geagea as its favorite candidate, yet failed to groom him as the president since Hezbollah, Amal, Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement, and Frangieh’s Marada Movement opposed the choice.
The competition is now between two candidates both close to Hezbollah. Suleiman Frangieh, the favorite candidate of Hezbollah’s opponents, is a more loyal candidate compared to Michel Aoun whose erratic record includes fights against Hezbollah and Syria.
Hezbollah however strives to show its loyalty to Michel Aoun by convincing Frangieh to step down from candidacy. It is clear that if elected, any of these two figures can serve Hezbollah’s interest, if only the opposition does not block voting be deserting the parliament.
It seems that the Lebanese Forces’ surprising initiative has been a blessing for Hezbollah to choose between good and better.
* This article was originally published in Iranian Diplomacy Persian. Majid Moradi is an Iranian scholar currently residing in Beirut.