Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in front of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon on Sept. 10, 2018, in The Hague. Photo: Bas Czerwinski/AFP via Getty Images

A 9-month political deadlock over the formation of Lebanon's new government has ended, resulting in a Cabinet in which Iran-backed Hezbollah has greater influence. The announced power-sharing agreement is unsurprising given Hezbollah’s strong electoral performance last May, when the predominantly Shiite organization and its allies seized the parliamentary majority from a loose coalition favored by the U.S. and led by returning Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

The big picture: While U.S. allies in Lebanon were able to impede Hezbollah’s ascendency through protracted negotiations, Hezbollah and its allies now control two-thirds of all key government ministries, with the militant group making further inroads into non-Shiite communities. Hezbollah is firmly entrenched in the Lebanese body politic and has grown into a regionwide fighting force on behalf of Iran, undercutting U.S. efforts to roll back Iranian influence.

Background: The Trump administration hopes its economic strategy of squeezing Iran and its allies, which kicked into high gear last November, will allow it to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal and limit that country’s regional sphere of influence. In Lebanon, however, this remains unlikely owing to Hezbollah’s increasing ability to hide behind legitimate state institutions and benefit from their resources.

In an apparent effort to blunt the impact of recently enacted U.S. sanctions on its finances, Hezbollah also secured a “service ministry” for the first time. Its control over Lebanon’s Ministry of Health, with an annual budget exceeding $469 million, could help ease the group’s financial pinch by allowing it to provide patronage at government expense.

Reality check: If Trump intends to aggressively pursue Hezbollah’s pocketbook, he will need to make hard decisions that could imperil Lebanon’s fragile political and financial stability, reversing a policy that prioritized containing the fallout from the war in Syria. This would entail scaling back military cooperation that the Pentagon deems important for the war against the Islamic State, or ISIS, and al-Qaeda, ending humanitarian assistance meant to alleviate the burden of hosting millions of Syrian refugees, and slapping sanctions against a good portion of Lebanon’s political elite for enabling Hezbollah.

The bottom line: If near-term stability in an otherwise turbulent region remains paramount, then the solution to the U.S.' Hezbollah problem will have to wait for a potential understanding with Iran.

Firas Maksad is the director of Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank. He is also adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School for International Affairs.

Go deeper

FDA chief vows agency will not accept political pressure on coronavirus vaccine

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn promised that "science will guide our decision" for a coronavirus vaccine at a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

Why it matters: More Americans are expressing doubt about a first-generation vaccine, despite President Trump's efforts to push an unrealistic timeline that conflicts with medical experts in his administration.

CEO confidence rises for the first time in over 2 years

Data: Business Roundtable; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios

A closely-watched CEO economic confidence index rose for the first time after declining for nine straight quarters, according to a survey of 150 chief executives of the biggest U.S. companies by trade group Business Roundtable.

Why it matters: The index, which still remains at a decade low, reflects corporate America's expectations for sales, hiring and spending — which plummeted amid uncertainty when the pandemic hit.

Official says White House political appointees "commandeered" Bolton book review

John Bolton's book "The Room Where it Happened." Photo: Chris Delmas/AFP via Getty Images

A former career official at the National Security Council claims her pre-publication review of former national security adviser John Bolton's explosive book on President Trump was "commandeered by political appointees for a seemingly political purpose," according to a letter from her lawyers filed in court on Tuesday.

Why it matters: The White House fought against the publication of Bolton's book for most of the year on the grounds that it contained harmful and "significant amounts of classified information."

Get Axios AM in your inbox

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!