- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
BEIRUT — American allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia haven’t been shy about criticizing the proposed deal over Iran’s nuclear program. But one surprising party has come out in favor of a diplomatic solution: America’s foe, the Lebanese paramilitary group Hezbollah.
"If an understanding is reached between Iran and the West over the nuclear program, our side will be stronger locally, regionally, and internationally," said Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah in a speech in Beirut’s southern suburbs last week on the occasion of Ashura, one of the most important holidays of the year for Shiites. "If things go for war, the other camp should be worried."
There is limited but mounting evidence that a U.S.-Iranian agreement over Tehran’s nuclear program could help improve the two countries’ collaboration on other issues. Washington and Tehran, for example, will likely both participate in a U.N.-sponsored effort to improve the humanitarian situation in Syria. But if Hezbollah’s vocal support for a deal is any indication, one issue that will remain unresolved is the role of the militant group, which U.S. officials have condemned in years past as "the A Team of terrorists" – and more recently castigated for lending military support to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In other words, the "Party of God" isn’t afraid that a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement would harm its close political and military ties to Tehran.
It helps, of course, that the war in nearby Syria is increasingly tilting in the direction of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, a staunch ally of both Hezbollah and Iran. The Syrian military — aided by fighters from Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias — has recently seized territory back in the Aleppo and Damascus suburbs, while also launching an offensive in the area of Qalamoun, along the Lebanese border. Syria’s prime minister responded to these gains on Nov. 13 by saying that the regime "is marching towards astounding victory."
Qassem Qassir, a journalist for the Lebanese daily as-Safir who follows the party closely, said that the movement sees in these military gains a chance to reconstitute its "Axis of Resistance," an array of actors opposed to U.S. and Saudi influence in the Middle East. This alliance had consisted of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, he said — but had been shattered with the outbreak of unrest in Syria, as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood joined the anti-Assad camp.
Hezbollah sees a chance to rebuild the ties between Hamas and the Assad regime, which were severed after senior Hamas officials left Damascus as the revolt gained pace in early 2012. Iran, which has maintained ties with Hamas even as it disapproved of its stance on Syria, is crucial to that effort – a fact that is unlikely to change with or without a nuclear deal. "[Hezbollah] is confident that they can re-strengthen the Axis of Resistance to the way it was before the Syrian revolt," Qassir said.
Other observers see Hezbollah’s public support for a deal in Geneva as an extension of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s orders to Iran’s internal factions that they say nothing that could undermine the talks. Iranian diplomats "have a difficult mission and no one must weaken an official who is busy with work," Khamenei said earlier this month. The negotiators, he added, "are children of the revolution."
With such explicit support from Khamenei, Iran’s top official and Hezbollah’s most important patron, the Lebanese movement has ample reason to throw its weight behind the talks. "[Hezbollah’s] views shouldn’t be surprising, because it’s reflecting current Iranian views," Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. diplomat who served as ambassador to both Israel and Jordan, told Foreign Policy.
Whatever Nasrallah’s reasons for supporting the talks, however, the Hezbollah chief did not neglect to use the moment to contrast what he described as America’s wavering support for its allies to the firm support of Hezbollah’s patrons. "We have two allies – Iran and Syria," he said. "We are sure of that alliance."