While being squeezed out of the global markets because of sanctions imposed by the UN, Iran's banks have landed new business opportunities in Lebanon.
Operating through front men and companies, they are financing land purchases that could, in time, redraw Lebanon's complex ethnic and religious map.
Soon after last year's war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic set up a "Lebanon Committee" ostensibly to rebuild Shi'ite areas damaged during the fighting. This started with a $250 million "Islamic gift", distributed by Hezbollah among its supporters. However, those who received the cash did not use it to rebuild their homes in Shi'ite villages south of the Litani River. When I visited the former war zone last spring, I was surprised to see that there was very little reconstruction work in Shi'ite villages close to the Israeli border.
Is Tehran developing a new strategy in which Lebanon south of the Litani would serve as a buffer zone in a future war against Israel? Until last year's war, the area was Hezbollah's stronghold and host to more than 90 per cent of its arsenal, including thousands of rockets and missiles. Now, however, Hezbollah, though still present, is not allowed to bear arms south of the Litani. More importantly, from Tehran's point of view, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is no longer able to maintain a presence there. Today, some 12,000 UN troops and almost as many men from the Lebanese regular army control the area.
It is against that background that Tehran's new strategy makes sense.
The strategy pursues three goals.
First, it aims at creating a string of bases north of the Litani from which rocket and missiles could be launched against Israel. It would also enable the the Revolutionary Guards and its Hezbollah allies to cut the route through which the central government in Beirut and/or the UN might send reinforcements to the south.
Second, acquiring land and building new villages in non-Shi'ite areas north of the Litani will provide territorial contiguity for the portion of the Shi'ite community loyal to Hezbollah and thus to the Islamic Republic. Tehran would be able to ferry aid and arms to its Lebanese allies through the Syrian border without having to cross areas controlled by other Lebanese sects. The state-owned Iranian Telecommunication Corporations is already building fibre-optic lines for internet, television and telephone networks out of control by the Lebanese government.
Finally, the new strategy could cut off part of the warrior-like Druze minority, some five per cent of Lebanon's population and currently the most dedicated supporters of democratisation, from its traditional stronghold in Wadi Al Taym. The Christian community could also be divided, with its traditional Greek Orthodox stronghold, Marj Ayoun, cut off from Maronite and Orthodox villages in southern Beka'a Valley.
That this may be one aim of Tehran's strategy is corroborated by the fact that most of the land bought with Iranian money in recent months has been sold by Christian and Druze families, often at prices too attractive to refuse.
The Iranian-financed land grab could also isolate the Sunni Muslim population in the disputed She'eba'a Farms, still under Israeli occupation.
If the scheme is fully implemented, Lebanon's Shi'ite could end up as the only one of the country's 18 communities to have a contiguous area of their own from the Syrian border to the frontier with Israel, and passing by southern Beirut. That would give the Hezbollah, considered as a state within the Lebanese state, a clear territorial expression as well.
A chunk of Lebanon controlled by Hezbollah plus Gaza under Hamas control would form the two arms of a pincer that the Islamic Republic could use against Israel in case of a broader conflict in the region.
Iran's "buy Lebanon" drive affects other sectors of the economy. Pro-Iranian groups already own five of the eight television stations and two of the four top-selling newspapers in Lebanon.
Add to this Hezbollah's rebuilt military machine, including some 2,000 new fighters, and the "state-within-the-state" would look like a fully-fledged state controlled by Tehran.
Tehran's new strategy is strengthened by the fact that Shi'ites represent the fastest growing community in Lebanon. Most estimates indicate that Shi'ites, accounting for at least 35 per cent of the population and already the largest community in Lebanon, may achieve a demographic majority within the next decade.
Encouraged by special funds set up by Tehran, Shiite families produce more children than other Lebanese communities. At the same time, Shi'ites represent the only community gaining in numbers because of expatriates returning home, often from West Africa. Lebanon's other big communities, the Maronites and Sunni Muslims, are losing numbers due to smaller families and rising immigration. While giving the impression that a war against the United States may be imminent, Tehran appears to have assumed that President George W. Bush's administration, sailing towards the sunset, is in no position to take action. This, Tehran strategists believe, gives them time to fortify Iran's positions in Gaza and Lebanon as bridgeheads against Israel. The assumption is that, faced with the possibility of massive losses of life in Israel, no future US president would think of attacking Iran.
Having invested some $20 billion in Lebanon since the 1980s, Tehran appears to have opted for a long-term strategy there. This may help calm things down, especially as Lebanon moves towards a potentially explosive presidential election this month.
There is, however, one big question: Will Syria, Iran's indispensable ally in the region, also have an interest in calming things down in Lebanon?
Traditionally, Syria has pursued a policy aimed at presenting itself as the only power capable of imposing stability on a chaotic Lebanon. If Tehran decides to buy Lebanon rather than grab it by the force of arms, Syria might find itself marginalised. That, in turn, might persuade the Syrians to reassess their ties to Tehran. But, that is another story.
Iranian author Amir Taheri is based in Europe.