By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry
BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Iran-backed Hezbollah aims to move beyond its traditional backseat role by assuming more influence in Lebanon’s next government to help it counter an escalating U.S. campaign against Tehran and its regional ascendancy.
A parliamentary majority for the Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah and its allies is expected to be reflected in a new coalition government that Western-backed Saad al-Hariri will now try to form, weakened by the loss of more than a third of his MPs.
The May 6 election underlined how Lebanon’s political landscape has tilted in Hezbollah’s favour in recent years, and is part of a bigger picture of expanding Iranian influence that Washington wants to counter.
“Hezbollah will strengthen its presence more than at any previous time,” a senior Lebanese official familiar with the group’s thinking told Reuters. “Now it has two ministers. It will have three – and three party members, known leaders – as clear as the sun. Shi’ites,” the senior official said.
The group, which has to date held only marginal cabinet posts, is also seeking more significant service-providing ministries in the new cabinet, according to the official and other sources familiar with Hezbollah thinking.
Any expansion of Hezbollah’s role in government could pose new questions for Western policy in Lebanon.
The country has been a big recipient of aid to help it cope with 1 million Syrian refugees on its soil, and its military has been armed and trained by the United States, which deems Hezbollah a terrorist group.
Analysts expect the new government to expand ties with the Hezbollah-allied Syrian government that is shunned by the West.
That would further erode Lebanon’s stated policy of regional neutrality that Beirut has claimed to uphold even with Hezbollah fighting in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The U.S. administration has made Hezbollah a target of its new policy to counter Iran after pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal, a move welcomed by U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia that view Iran and Hezbollah as a regional threat.
While Hezbollah’s arsenal has long made it the most powerful group in Lebanon, it has always limited its role in state institutions that are divided out among sectarian groups.
Hezbollah has in the past foregone some of the ministries to which it was entitled and ceded them to allies, the senior official said. This election marks a break with that approach, the official said, though Hezbollah is not seeking to dominate.
In the outgoing government, it held the ministries of youth and sport, and industry. A second senior source familiar with Hezbollah’s thinking said the group was eyeing the ministries of public works, health, social affairs or telecoms.
These service-providing ministries could boost Hezbollah’s political capital, analysts say.
In addition, Hezbollah believes one of its Sunni Muslim allies should be assigned a ministry to reflect gains they made at Hariri’s expense in the election, the sources say.
Hezbollah is not seeking any of the so-called “sovereign” ministries – finance, interior, defence and foreign affairs. But it wants the finance ministry to remain with its close ally, the Shi’ite Amal Movement, the senior official said.
Graphic on Lebanon’s new assembly – https://tmsnrt.rs/2IsdkeT
U.S. SAYSLEBANON’S POWERBALANCENOTGOOD
Hezbollah, groups and individuals that support its possession of arms won at least 70 of parliament’s 128 seats in the election. That was a reversal of Lebanon’s last general election in 2009, when an anti-Hezbollah coalition led by Hariri and backed by Saudi Arabia won the majority.
Hariri’s “March 14” coalition disintegrated after 2009. Saudi Arabia has turned its focus to countering Iran in other parts of the region since then, leaving Hariri weaker.
The collapse of his Saudi-based construction business hit the finances that had supported his Future Movement.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said this week that
Iran must end its support for Hezbollah as one of Washington’s conditions for Tehran to avoid tough new sanctions.
Speaking to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Pompeo said there were “certainly changes” in Lebanon’s election but Washington assessed the “overall balance of power won’t be materially changed as an outcome of that”.
“That’s good and bad. The existing balance of power is not a good one in its own right,” he said.
He added that Washington should review its assistance, including to the Lebanese army, “to make sure that we’re using American taxpayers’ dollars right, and supporting the groups that can most likely achieve our outcome there”.
The U.S. administration has issued new financial sanctions targeting the leadership of Hezbollah, which was set up by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in 1982.
Lebanon’s government has previously lobbied Washington to avoid sanctions that would hit its banking system as a whole.
Hariri has said the new sanctions may accelerate the formation of the new government.
But analysts see a tough time ahead in the cabinet talks, noting parliamentary gains by the staunchly anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces, which roughly doubled their representation to 15 MPs and wants a bigger slice of cabinet.
“It’s difficult to see this process wrapped up quickly,” Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said.
(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall and Ellen Francis; editing by Mark Heinrich)