Will Christians pay for a nuclear deal with Iran?

The Lebanese are wondering what the recent interim deal over Iran’s nuclear program means for them. There is a proverb that says, “If you sit by the river long enough, you will see the body of your enemy float by.” In Lebanon, sit by the river long enough, and you will see the region’s bodies floating by, as everything bad in the Middle East tends to wash up on the country’s troubled shores.

For the opponents of Iran, the recent deal, which lifted some sanctions on the Islamic Republic, is regarded as threatening. It may free up billions of dollars, allowing Tehran to readily finance its military operations in the Arab world, including Hezbollah’s.

Moreover, a rapprochement between Iran and the United States, they fear, will give Tehran greater latitude to pursue its political agenda without intervention from the United States, which doesn’t want to jeopardize future negotiations over a final nuclear deal with Iran.

At the heart of Arab anxiety is a mistrust of the Obama administration, and a feeling that it will be taken to the cleaners in talks by the more patient and versatile Iranians.

That may be true, or it may not be, but few Lebanese are pinning their hopes on the United States, despite statements by the US ambassador in Beirut, David Hale, that Washington would counter Iran’s activities in the region, and those of Hezbollah, regardless of the negotiations with Iran. From their perspective, Lebanon, as the weakest link in the regional system, is bound to lose out in the end.

Though this reading may be overly pessimistic, its basics are sound. That’s because if, as many Lebanese want, the United States and the European states decide to push Iran to make concessions in its regional agenda, including ending support for a militarized Hezbollah, the Iranians would only accept this, if indeed they ever do, in exchange for greater political power for their Lebanese Shiite allies.

That would mean reformulating the Taif accord and scrapping the 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliament. This would presumably be replaced with a ratio of one-third of seats for Shiites, another third for the Sunnis, and the final third for the Christians.

Other amendments may be introduced as well, for instance removing the presidency from the hands of the Maronites, or threatening to do so; raising the share of senior public offices reserved for Shiites, for instance the position of army commander; and so on. Of course, the speakership of parliament often seems stronger than the presidency, so Shiite demands could be weighed against the costs of alienating the Christians by denying them the position of head of state.

While it has become largely a sinecure, the presidency has great symbolic value for the Maronites. Rather than negotiate a readjustment of power and implementation of Taif in a way that prevents an imposition of unwanted reforms on their community in the future, Christian leaders have stubbornly clung to their prerogatives without properly reading the changing political context.

But whatever happens, this context is indeed changing as Lebanon is already a country whose destiny is being shaped by dynamics in the Sunni and Shiite communities. The Christians have a role, and an important one, as balancers between the two main Muslim sects, but it is very different than what they were used to before. Rather than simply lamenting their decline, their best option is to understand where they are today and chart a new role for themselves in a very different Lebanon than the one that emerged after independence.

As Sunni-Shiite tensions rise, the principal regional sponsors of both communities will seek to shape Lebanon to the advantage of their favorites in the country. To contain the Sunnis, Iran will demand more power for the Shiites – at least power commensurate with their numbers. In turn, Saudi Arabia will try to contain Iranian power in Lebanon by curbing Hezbollah’s influence and seeing to it that the Sunnis preserve their political prerogatives.

This likely Saudi reaction will buy time for Taif, and indirectly for the Christians, but for how long? Ultimately, Sunnis would not lose much from a redistribution of the cards in the Lebanese political system, and could in the end find common ground with the Shiites. The Christians, with no regional sponsors of their own, are dispensable.

That is why Christian leaders must begin formulating a unified position on their future, something not easy at a time of Christian divisions, and in the shadow of a Maronite church led by a man devoid of political vision. But Patriarch Bishara al-Rai is not alone in meriting blame. The Christian political leadership seems thoroughly incapable of adopting a united stance to prepare the road ahead.

Instead, some Christian leaders imagine their salvation will come if Assad triumphs in Syria; others wager that Sunni-Shiite animosities will prevent any progress over a new political order. Perhaps in the short term such calculations may work, but not for long. Ultimately demographic realities will place Christian fortunes on the bargaining table, and Christian leaders must prepare for that inevitability.

American recognition of Iran’s regional role, even if it has only been implicit until now, will have far-reaching consequences. Iran is doubtless far ahead in the game, calculating what they can secure in the bazaar that follows any eventual final nuclear accord. Yet the Lebanese in general, and Christians in particular, are ill prepared for this phase, as they are for most challenges facing their country.

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