Iran’s Best Friend in Lebanon?
By FRANKLIN LAMB
Key Iranian and American officials arrived in Lebanon last week to assess the strength of their local allies in the fast approaching and crucial legislative elections, the escalating spillover effects of the Syrian uprising in North Lebanon and presumably other ways each country can remain key players in this cross-roads/cross-hairs quasi-country.
The Lebanese public and media heard plenty of policy nuances and even similar and seemingly repeated statements by the two well-listened to guests.
But there were plenty of differences. During over-lapping visits one warned and threatened Lebanon, while the second praised Lebanon’s “achievements”. Admittedly, divining these Lebanese ‘achievements” is no mean task.
Making the front page lead paragraph in a number of Beirut and Middle East dailies last Friday were nearly simultaneous summations by the two visitors as they articulated their country’s policy toward Lebanon.
One visitor was Jeffrey Feltman, the long serving US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, who for all intents and purposes in still US Ambassador to Lebanon and elsewhere in the Levant. Mr. Feltman is well known in Lebanon and many here actually view him as a too frequent visitor, Assistant Secretary Feltman repeated his seven year mantra during a meeting with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, of warnings for the Lebanese government and citizens to break with Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.
On the arguably more positive side, as he had so many times in the past, Assistant Secretary Feltman renewed the United States’ commitment to “a stable, sovereign and independent Lebanon”. And he repeated these words to the President of the Chamber of Deputies Speaker Nabih Berri, Progressive Socialist Party Leader MP Walid Jumblatt, Lebanese Forces Party President Samir Geagea, Maronite Bishop of Beirut Boulous Matar, and March 14 politicians. All of whom presumably hear the words in their sleep by now as all visiting US officials repeat Feltman’s buzz words.
A few hours earlier, another visitor, the Iranian First Vice President, Mohammad Rida Rahimi, having arrived in Lebanon in a bid to implement agreements signed between the two gentlemen used 67 per cent of the same key words but their meanings appear vastly different and that’s why some of us could use some help from a serious student of the subject.
Feltman told his interlocutors that he came to Lebanon to express his country’s “grave concern” on a number of issues including Hezbollah and its links with Iran and Syria. He also gave instructions on next year’s parliamentary elections which his team, the March 14 opposition, has threatened to boycott. If they do, according to some analysts here, their decision will have resulted from Feltman’s instructions.
The Beirut Daily, As-Safir, reported that Feltman’s sole purpose was to lash out at Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.
And he did.
Feltman repeatedly warned that “if some sides in Lebanon seek to circumvent the sanctions on Iran then the Lebanese government will face “very serious complicated problems with the international community. The “International Community” is increasingly defined as “US allies”. During his meeting at the obsequious and literally genuflecting pro-Saudi MP Boutros Harb’s house, whose front page photograph showed the MP bowing deeply to Feltman, the latter threatened that “the United States is keen not to allow any exploitation of the bank secrecy in Lebanon, in order to bypass the sanctions on Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria. This enters deep into US strategy.”
Feltman’s threats continued as he sought to pressure businessmen in Syria and Lebanon:”Not abiding by the US and International sanctions will have dangerous repercussions on the Lebanese banking sector.” More than once Feltman warned the Lebanese, with reference to the recent unilateral sanctions imposed on the Central Bank of Iran, not to underestimate the American capacity to monitor and trace deposits and transfers. Most Lebanese are generally aware that US Treasury officials have been swarming through Lebanon the past two years in order to intimidate Lebanon’s banking sector and shore up the failing US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Assistant Secretary Feltman, as he has done for the past seven years, repeated to his Lebanese hosts that the US would consider providing arms to the Lebanese army. While nearly everyone in Lebanon realizes that the American Congress will veto even shoe laces for the Lebanese army without Israel’s approval, Iran is ready to help. Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn announced this week that Iran is ready to ship weapons to the Lebanese army and that the shipments will begin as soon as Prime Ministers Najib Mikati’s government finalizes its own political decision. “The Iranian weapons are ready Ghosn told a Beirut Daily As-Safir. “ Our request is there [in Iran]. What is missing is a political decision from the Cabinet to provide support for the Lebanese Army.” Mr. Feltman is working diligently to assure that the Cabinet does not give its approval.
While Feltman was busy so was Iranian First Vice-President Rahimi. Rahimi signed three memoranda of understanding agreed upon in previous meetings.
During his meetings, the Iranian first Vice President stressed his country’s “total support for Lebanon on the political, economic, and development levels.
According to sources attending the Joint Lebanese-Iranian Higher Committee meeting, Rahimi discussed Iranian support to Lebanon on the oil, electricity, economic, trade, and agricultural levels, in addition to Iran’s interest in constructing water dams.
To give credence to his words, Rahimi presented a $40 million Iranian grant to Lebanon to pay for the construction of a dam in the Batroun region. He further announced that as the agreement’s executive program has been signed in both Tehran and Beirut, Iranian engineers will soon arrive in Lebanon to begin a project that the American government has discussed since the late 1970’s but has always conditioned US help to Lebanon on “better relations” with Israel.
With respect to Lebanon’s continuing electricity crisis, which leaves many in Lebanon with only 4-8 hours of government electricity per day, an Iranian Energy Ministry official said over the weekend that Iran would begin providing Lebanon with electricity next week. Abdolhamid Farzam, the Iranian Energy Ministry’s official in charge of foreign exchanges, was reported as saying that Iran would supply Lebanon with 50 Megawatts during an initial phase, to be boosted to 200 MW in the second phase.
On the subject of Israel, which is said to deeply concern Feltman, one American stringer for a major US daily who was covering the two envoys visit noted that Embassy sources advised that Feltman was in a bad mood during part of his visit for a few reasons. One was because he was not advised of the Iranian Vice-President’s simultaneous visit. Another was because he not told about the May 12th celebrations organized by Hezbollah and Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah speech that were sure to dominate a news cycle. The Hezbollah mass event was to acknowledge the success of its building and construction unit, WAAD (‘promise), in completing after nearly four years of nearly 24/7 rebuilding, 275 high rise apartment buildings housing more than ten thousand citizens in South Beirut. The destruction was caused by American weapons in the hands of Zionist forces and destroyed with carpet bombing Dahiyeh/Haret Hreik neighborhoods during the 33 days of the July 2006 aggression against Lebanon.
Feltman complained that there were American citizens who were tenants in some of the recently completed buildings that cost more than $ 450 to rebuild, despite both Hezbollah and its construction company, Jihad al Binna being put on US terrorism lists at his initiative. He reportedly demanded an investigation.
According to the same sources, Assistant Secretary Feltman was grousing over discouraging reports that another one of his projects, this one to salvage Camp David, was experiencing turbulence. Specifically, he was briefed that the current front runner in the May 23-24 Egyptian Presidential election, Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, has branded Israel a “racist state” and repeated to cheering crowds that the 1979 peace treaty with Israel was “a national security threat” that had to be scrapped and added that Israel and its supporters were “enemies of the Egyptian people.”
To make matters and his mood worse, the American Assistant Secretary was informed that another strong Egyptian presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafiq is exciting crowds with his campaign claim that the former air force chief had shot down two Israeli planes during the War of Attrition which Egypt declared between 1969 and 1970. “General Ahmed Shafiq has a great military record and career,” his campaign statement said.
Priding himself on being an adherent of realpolitik, Feltman is observing Israel being rejected by Arabs, Muslims and increasingly by the grounding swelling movement by people of good will including his own countrymen. He reportedly told one interviewer recently that he sees his role as “trying to staunch the coming tsunami of global rejection and delegitimization of Israel, and it’s not going to be easy.”
Meanwhile, Iran’s Vice-President Rahimi’s program included a meeting with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, and a visit to the, “Iran” Gardens hugely popular with many Lebanese families, in the southern village of Maroun al-Ras located on Lebanon’s borders with occupied Palestine. From this hillside vantage point, on a clear day one can see Akka and other ethnically cleansed areas.
Similar words from Washington and Tehran to Beirut via experienced envoys. But fundamentally different approaches and deeds as has so often has been the case over the past decade.
Washington has, in important strategic respects, handed Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and soon more of the Persian Gulf countries to Iran’s rising presence and influence.
Next is likely Lebanon.