Lebanon and the next Middle East triangle



Note: this is a machine translation from the original Russian text

It is formed by Saudi Arabia – Iran – Israel.

In mid-May, the long-awaited elections to the local parliament were held in Lebanon. Their results, of course, will be of crucial importance not only for this long-suffering country, but also for the entire Middle East.

Lebanon is one of the sites of confrontation between two powerful players – Saudi Arabia and Iran. Their rivalry lies, by and large, at the heart of all the troubles, conflicts, crises tearing Lebanon apart.

If we proceed from this circumstance, we can conclude that the very fact of the elections testifies to the mutual desire of Riyadh and Tehran to find a way out of the Lebanese impasse. Against the background of the contacts they established in Baghdad and the truce in Yemen, this looks completely logical: The KSA and the IRI are looking for opportunities to normalize their relations in radically changed global and regional conditions.

The results of the Lebanese elections are known: a new balance has been established between the two leading camps. It is unstable and inconclusive; its future depends on the behavior of "independent" deputies, whose number has increased significantly. This result was achieved due to the retreat of the pro-Iranian forces led by Hezbollah, which lost control of the majority in parliament.

This retreat was clearly coordinated and organized. Otherwise, the leader of Hezbollah, Sheikh Nasrallah, would not have gone for a quick and conflict-free recognition of the results of the vote. At the same time, it is fundamentally important to understand that this would be unthinkable without preliminary agreements between Tehran and Riyadh and without appropriate mutual guarantees. Their probable content: Iran refrains from aggressive actions, does not use the remaining power advantage of Hezbollah and gives it greater freedom of maneuver; Saudi Arabia does not seek to further weaken Hezbollah or defeat it in order to establish its own hegemony.

The exchange of such guarantees is possible only if there are common, quite specific interests. And Sheikh Nasrallah made the first hint the other day about the possible content of these interests. He called on the Lebanese to unite and work together to revive and develop the state. He called the oil and gas fields on the Lebanese shelf a source of resources for development.

This is extremely important, because the Eastern Mediterranean shelf is turning into one of the central geopolitical problems around which the entire regional situation will develop. Solving this incredibly complex problem will require virtually a complete restructuring of the entire regional structure.

One of the most "innovative" features of such a new structure is the status of a Mediterranean power, which Iran should receive as part of the implementation of Sheikh Nasrallah's idea. Moreover, with the support of the KSA.

The development of the situation in this direction hardly suits Israel. Iran's access to the Mediterranean Sea is a true "nightmare" for Israel, no less (if not more) worse than the Iranian nuclear missile threat. Therefore, Tel Aviv's desire to prevent the implementation of this scenario and the opposition to Iranian-Saudi coordination in Lebanon may become one of the main trends determining the development of the regional situation.

However, what can Tel Aviv do? Strike a blow to the Iran-Saudi balance in Lebanon? But this will once again expose him as a "malicious aggressor" and draw him into another large–scale and dangerous military campaign, because Hezbollah is by no means a paper tiger. In addition, Israel's next Lebanon war will disrupt the process initiated by the "Abraham agreements" on "normalization" with Arab countries, and will call into question the establishment of strategically significant relations with Turkey.

Such an adventure will once again put Israel "outside the law" in the region, deprive it of the opportunity to offer the Middle East its vision of a joint future. This will mean a strategic defeat, even if at the moment it turns out to disrupt the Iranian plans.

At a time when Washington's support for Israel is by no means guaranteed, such a move looks reckless.

Tel Aviv cannot fail to understand this, and there, apparently, they are making a choice in favor of more subtle actions aimed at upsetting the emerging Iranian-Saudi balance. We are talking about intensifying efforts aimed at involving Riyadh in the process of Israeli-Arab "normalization".

So the question arose about two islands in the Red Sea – Tirana and Sanafir. They belong to the KSA and control the exit of the Israeli fleet from the Gulf of Aqaba. Tel Aviv insists that a special trilateral agreement between Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt be concluded on them. Its signing will mean the actual and legal recognition of Israel by Riyadh, which is what the Israelis are striving for.

There is no doubt that the Israelis themselves and their new friends in the Gulf (UAE) are strongly advertising the benefits that the KSA can receive if it joins the "Abraham agreements": access to Israeli technologies, the possibility of creating a joint air defense-missile defense system, prospects for investment in the development of the Mediterranean shelf…

At the same time, it is no less likely that the Saudis are also under pressure of a different nature: the demonstrative "liquidations" carried out by the Israeli special services in Iran cannot remain without attention in Riyadh. They probably understand that no Saudi politician, businessman or officer can feel safe: the Mossad is able to eliminate anyone. Especially if this "anyone" is connected with Iran.

For its part, Tehran is also putting pressure on Riyadh. Apparently, while remaining faithful to certain agreements, he does not escalate either in Iraq, Yemen, or (as we have seen) in Lebanon. But he makes it clear that Saudi Arabia is not the only country in the Gulf with which Iran can do business. The alternative is Qatar, whose emir held very fruitful talks in the Iranian capital. And the subsequent visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to the Sultanate of Oman became a clear demonstration that the Iranians broke the blockade in the Gulf and that "normalization" with Iran enjoys no less, if not more popularity among local monarchs.

In this context, of course, Iran-Qatar relations are of particular interest, since Doha is quite capable of "outbid" Saudi clients, taking the place of Riyadh, for example, in the same Lebanon. It can even be assumed that such attempts have already been made and for the sake of their suppression, a scandal was arranged with the Lebanese Minister Cordahi: with his help, the Saudis brought order to the circles focused on the different capitals of the Gulf, and led them to swear allegiance exclusively to Riyadh. But if Doha offers more favorable terms, discipline and the oath will not work.

But not only in Lebanon, Saudi interests may be threatened by the duet of Iran and Qatar. This is also possible in Syria, where Tehran is able to strengthen its position against the background of a reduction in the Russian military presence, which is already being recorded by the Arabs. Qatar is able to play the role of mediator between Iran and Turkey and together with them reduce Saudi influence here to nothing.

If we take into account that in recent years Riyadh has practically lost its traditional support from Washington and there are no hopes for rapid improvement here, then it becomes obvious: the KSA is now in a very difficult situation. On the one hand, the kingdom is very interested in "normalization" with Iran in order to get rid of the unbearable burden of rivalry with it. Otherwise, we will have to exist in a ring of conflicts (Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon), without having the strength either to manage them or to resolve them.

On the other hand, it is necessary to somehow build your relations with Israel: either go for "nomalization" with it - but then you will have to forget about Iran and actually turn into an Arab vassal of Tel Aviv. Or refuse to openly "normalize" with the Jewish state and play a double game, balancing between it and the Iranian Shiites.

This role is neither to the face nor on the shoulder of Saudi Arabia, but nevertheless, it seems that it will be forced to play it, at least in the near future. The chances of success may appear if Riyadh manages to convince the Israelis of its ability to control Iran's activity, in particular, in Lebanon (as well as in Iraq, Yemen and Syria), and, if necessary, to restrain it. So Saudi strategists and diplomats will have to prove that they are no worse than their Emirati and Qatari counterparts.