New president in Lebanon gets support by Iran and Hezbollah
Beirut,Nov1:Lebanon’s lawmakers elected Michel Aoun, an lran-backed politician and former general, as president Monday, ending more than two years the country has gone without a leader.
Aoun, 81, is an ally of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party backed by Iran that has helped Syrian President Bashar Assad survive a five-year civil war on Lebanon’s border.
The vote for Aoun, by 83 of parliament’s 127 members, shows Iran-backed political factions shouldered past those aligned with Saudi Arabia, replacing Syria as Lebanon’s chief foreign power broker.
Aoun’s “victory now is a victory for Hezbollah and that alliance, and certainly a kind of black eye for Saudi Arabia,” said Paul Salem, vice president for policy and research at the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a power-sharing system,” Salem said. “In a way, the status quo will continue.”
U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby congratulated Lebanon on the election results.
“This is a moment of opportunity, as Lebanon emerges from years of political impasse, to restore government functions and build a more stable and prosperous future for all Lebanese citizens,” he said in a statement.
Asked later about Aoun’s support from Hezbollah, which the State Department has designated a terrorist organization, Kirby said: “Let’ see what decisions he makes, what kind of leadership he exudes as president.”
The U.S. routinely assesses its foreign assistance programs “and we will do that with Lebanon going forward,” Kirby said at a press briefing.
Aoun’s election drew immediate praise from a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei.
The adviser, Ali Akbar Velayati, described the choice as a victory for Iran and its allies in Lebanon, because the Lebanese president is “a very significant ring in the chain of the Islamic resistance,” according to Iran’s government-owned Tasnim News Agency.
Aoun, in his first speech after becoming president, pledged to fight corruption and protect Lebanon from the fires raging around it, referring to the Syrian civil war, according to the Associated Press. He also promised to liberate contested territory under “Israeli occupation,” according to Hezbollah’s Al Manar-TV, apparently referring to territory Israel considers part of the Golan Heights, which it conquered from Syria during the 1967 war.
Lebanon has been without a head of state since May 2014, when then-president Michel Suleiman’s six-year term expired. Since then, 45 sessions to elect a new leader have failed because of political infighting, the AP reported.
He led the Lebanese Army during a years-long civil war against Syrian troops and Iranian-backed Hezbollah in the late 1980s. Aoun and his supporters lost, and he was forced into exile in 1991.
A constant critic of Hezbollah and Syria’s then-president Hafez Assad, Aoun returned to Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of then-prime minister Rafiq Hariri. U.N. investigators blamed the murder on Hezbollah and its ally Syria, which occupied Lebanon at the time.
Syria was subsequently forced by international pressure to withdraw its forces from the country. But Aoun later reconciled with Hezbollah and visited the Iranian capital, Tehran.
While Saudi Arabia has largely “written off” Lebanon, canceling this year its $4 billion-a-year support for the Lebanese military and security forces, the U.S. remains a key supporter of the Lebanese military, Salem said.
The Lebanese military has largely succeeded in keeping al-Qaeda extremist violence from crossing over from Syria, but it has done nothing about Hezbollah, “which is a completely independent organization,” Salem said.
With new leadership, Lebanon will be expected to launch parliamentary elections, which are more than three years overdue, Salem said.