In the run-up to the November 3, 2020 elections, a staple of the U.S. foreign policy debate was about the wisdom and efficacy of the Trump administration’s “Maximum Pressure” campaign against Iran. In short, the logic of the campaign was to impose wide-ranging, crippling sanctions on Tehran in order to compel the Iranian regime to cease its terror support, regional destabilization campaigns, and nuclear drive. The fact that the Islamic Republic ramped up its enrichment activities against the backdrop of the sanctions campaign led those critical of both sanctions and the exit from the 2015 nuclear deal to suggest that Trump’s policy had done more harm than good.
Part of the problem with assessing whether or not maximum pressure worked is that the world does not always conform to the American political calendar. Nor is enrichment the only metric by which to judge the policy’s success. In early December 2020, I visited Nabatieh, a Hezbollah-dominated town in the heart of the Iranian proxy’s southern Lebanese stronghold. What I heard surprised me: Residents with whom I met at a local coffee shop, including veterans of ‘resistance’ against Israel, suggested Hezbollah was failing them. As the United States had sanctioned the Islamic Republic and sent Iran’s economy further into decline, Iranian subsidies were beginning to dry up and so Hezbollah was discovering just how few ideological fellow travelers they could count upon versus those who had joined their ranks for the money.
In recent days, the Lebanese pound has plummeted against the dollar as political paralysis and crippling corruption continue to blight the country. The fault here is not limited to Hezbollah, but rather to a broader array of Lebanon’s elites. Nevertheless, in Nabitieh, it is Hezbollah that is seeing its legitimacy plummeting. Earlier today, for example, there were fistfights in Nabatieh supermarkets as residents scrambled to grab subsidized food projects from shelves. On social media, Shiites have been posting that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah promised that locals would not go hungry, but now the only ones not hungry are the partisans who have access to special sale locations.
Even in the wake of attacks by Iranian-backed militias on Iraqi bases where American forces and contractors reside and Houthi attacks on Saudi civilian and commercial targets, the Biden administration has been facilitating the release of billions of dollars to Iran and, by extension, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps elements that dominate that country’s economy. This may be because Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan seek to fast track nuclear diplomacy. To do so, however, as Hezbollah hemorrhages support in its heartland would be policy malpractice and snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
As Lebanese learn they cannot depend on Hezbollah and that the group cares only for its core leadership, the time is now to bypass the Beirut elite, pepper southern Lebanon with micro-grants, and strike a knockout blow to Hezbollah’s claims to legitimacy once and for all.