Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Shia Islamist organization Hezbollah has announced more Iranian ships are bringing fuel to Lebanon.
The country is under an unprecedented political and economic crisis and is facing massive gasoline shortages – even after the first vessel arrived on August 19.
Some worry Iran-funded Hezbollah could thus take the place of the almost collapsing Lebanese state or companies.
Others worry the US could impose sanctions on Lebanon due to its relation with the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The US Ambassador to Lebanon in fact stated, hours after Hezbollah’s statement, that Washington was in talks with Jordan and Egypt to find solutions to Lebanon’s fuel crisis, which has affected businesses, hospitals, and homes.
Riad Toufic Salameh, the Governor of Lebanon’s central bank claimed two weeks ago that Beirut simply lacks the foreign reserves needed to release dollars to import fuel.
On August 12, Salamesh announced Lebanon decided to change the exchange rate used as a base for importing fuel, thus sharply increasing retail prices. Gasoline prices may rise up to 66% as subsidies were cut in an attempt to ease shortages.
This central bank measure clashed with outgoing Prime Minister Hassand Diab’s government, which pledged to keep the subsidies in an ongoing dispute. Diab described Salamesh’s decision as illegal and irresponsible.
Several roads were closed by protesters the same day and the demonstrations are still going on. It is in this context that Hezbollah and its network of Shia businessmen arranged for the shipments of oil.
This move was criticised by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and other political figures as an infringement on the Lebanese state’s sovereignty.
According to the Iranian semi-official Nour News agency, the first fuel shipment was bought by a group of Lebanese Shiite merchants.
The same agency reported that the shipment should be considered Lebanese property “from the moment it is loaded”, and described the fuel dispatch as a “strong action taken by Iran and Hezbollah to break the economic siege of the Lebanese people by a western-Arab-Israeli axis”.
According to Laury Haytayan, a Middle East gas and oil expert and a Natural Resource Charter Senior Officer, Hezbollah’s announcement in itself could place Lebanon in danger of being sanctioned for the ships bringing fuel from Iran are carrying a product that is under US sanctions and thus anyone engaging with such product could also be sanctioned under the current regime that targets third parties buying Iranian oil or merely interacting with the Iranian financial sector.
The Lebanese government could of course ask for a waiver of these sanctions (such as the ones that were granted to Iraq pertaining to Iranian gas imports) but the hard truth is that Lebanon today barely has a government.
Any political void always invites political entrepreneurship and Hezbollah seems to be showing itself capable of doing what the government can’t.
Furthermore, there have been Israeli attacks on shipments of Iranian fuel to Syria, which neighbors Lebanon.
If such were to happen with a shipment heading to Lebanon, this would obviously further increase anti-Israeli sentiment in a country where tensions are already escalating.
Some see Hezbollah’s move as a part of a kind of a deterrence equation, that is, the Shia organization would retaliate in case Israel attacks any ship bringing fuel during a major energy crisis.
Nasrallah also said Hezbollah could help bring an Iranian company to drill, if necessary. These remarks were made during his televised speech for Ashura, an Islamic holiday of particular significance for Shias.
With the current crisis, Hezbollah is showing itself to be the only faction that can organize the country. This means Iran’s influence on the Levant is to increase which will worry many actors, particularly Saudi Arabia.
Earlier this year Iran and Saudi Arabia started a series of talks, urged by Qatar, but they have been suspended. The new Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi has claimed his foreign policy priority now is to improve relations with the Persian Gulf Arab countries, which are led by Saudi Arabia.
The current war in Yemen is a point of contention, though, for Tehran supports the Houthi insurgency in Yemen.
Riad leads a major military intervention in the country against the Houthi rebels (in a coalition that includes Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Egypt, Jordan, and Sudan). This makes the conflict in Yemen a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
If Tehran and Riad could put such differences aside they could help bring peace and stability to the region. But this is not an easy task, as the two rivals still seem to compete in Iraq and Lebanon and might further compete in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal.
Washington and the European powers are losing their influence in the Lebanese political game.
Solving the energy crisis in Lebanon is first and foremost a humanitarian issue and if the US chooses to act in terms of sanctioning Lebanon this would greatly harm US President Joe Biden’s narrative of the United States as a champion of human rights worldwide.
The current crisis after all is also about Iran – whose economy has been hit hard by sanctions and today has a 45% inflation rate and has reached the highest price for food products.
If the US does not sanction Lebanon, such will serve Hezbollah as a kind of a show of force. If Washington does sanction the country, Hezbollah also wins somehow for it would corroborate its narrative of Lebanon under siege.
Under such a scenario Lebanon should further enhance its relations with Iran. Thus, no scenario is good for the US.
Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts.