Joseph Sadek participated in the Washington Academic Internship Program, through the John Glenn School of Public Affairs. He worked at the New America Foundation, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy institute focusing on new ideas to address the next generation of challenges facing the United States. His project paper focuses on Lebanon.
The United States and the United Nations know what is at stake in Lebanon. The growth of armed militias like Hezbollah will negatively affect the region. In a recent memo to Sec. General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, UN official Terje Roed-Larsen said Lebanon was the most important geopolitical point in the region (illoubnan.info). The US understands the need to act.
There are a few policy options the United States can implement to neutralize Iranian influence and ease tensions in Lebanese politics. It has to be approached by ending sectarianism and disarming Hezbollah. If executed collectively one could get the best outcome. Doing any one of these would increase stability in Lebanon and the region.
First and foremost, US diplomats can mediate talks to discuss the mistrust and grievances amongst the ruling parties in Lebanon. Many of Lebanon's domestic political issues can be sorted out if the parties came together and talked (Sterling 2). As in international politics, greater iteration amongst parties allows the parties to better understand each other. The same applies to the deadlocked domestic political arena (Oye 7). Sectarianism has only increased in Lebanon. Bringing in a foreign moderator could create a space for the sects to come together. This method worked during the Taif agreement, which ended the Civil war in 1989 (Karyem).
One might argue that if the majority of Arab states wanted to solve the issues in Lebanon they would have negotiated Hezbollah's disarmament on their own. However, Hezbollah's armament is directly linked to Israel. As of right now only the United States can productively negotiate and engage with Israel and Lebanon at the same time.
Another approach is to engage Syria, and help promote a productive Lebanese-Syrian relationship. Iran projects its power in Lebanon primarily through Hezbollah, mainly in the form of weapons. Many of the weapons that Hezbollah's fighters obtain cross Syria's borders (Department of State). The increase in Hezbollah's weapons stockpiles obviously makes Hezbollah more threatening domestically. The weapons build up also threatens the southern border with Israel. The US does "have some cards to play" in the Syria game. Engaging the Syrian regime would be a productive way to end Hezbollah's arms acquisitions.
Engagement shouldn't be too hard for the Obama Administration. Since its beginning there has been active engagement with nations the US had traditionally snubbed because of their regime type. This administration, on the other hand, has sought diplomatic ties with Syria recently. An example of the renewed relationship was the reopening of the US embassy in Syria this year (Robert). The US can create conditions and increase incentives for Syria to forbid weapons from travelling across its borders. This would do three things. First, it would greatly disrupt Hezbollah's ability to acquire weapons. Secondly, as a result, Hezbollah would feel isolated because domestic pressure, along with no Syrian ally, would leave the organization without any foreign support. Finally, a reduction in its ability to acquire arms would ease tensions on the Israeli-Lebanese border. If Israel knew that Hezbollah wasn't getting stronger, their policy of military buildup on the border would end.
After having exhausted its ability to mediate domestic political disputes and cutting off the flow of arms the US has a last option. As I said earlier, it's best to implement all of these policies in a holistic approach, however this last one is the strongest, but hardest to execute. The US can effectively change its policy towards Israel to make realistic progress on the Palestinian issue. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict directly or indirectly affects many conflicts in the region. In fact, the cause of many Islamic extremists is to destroy Israel due to the "Palestine issue." Hezbollah is partly in that category. They see Israel as a detriment to Arab well-being. Their own followers were products of occupation and feel a sense of unity with the Palestinians. The US can take a more aggressive posture with Israel on settlements to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. If a viable peace deal can be brokered, that would greatly hinder Hezbollah's legitimacy. Hezbollah could no longer call Israel an aggressor when it has made peace with the Palestinians. Also, Iran could no longer justify resistance against Israel. In fact, if Hezbollah and Iran did continue to maintain an aggressive posture, they would be seen as the aggressors. As I said, this final policy suggestion is the hardest to grasp and is likely impossible in the short-run. However, the US posture towards Israel must change. A broad range of policymakers believe that. It's best for longterm US security in the region. For the purpose of this paper it is also the best policy to weaken Iranian influence over Lebanon.