Contentious Iranian Fuel Shipment to Crisis-Stricken Lebanon Enters Syrian Waters

"Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines - IRISL - Container ship ARTIS departing Malta Feb 2011" by sludgegulper (CC BY-SA 2.0)

An Iranian ship carrying fuel destined for crisis-stricken Lebanon, entered Syria’s territorial waters on Thursday, according to reports from Beirut-based news agency al-Akhbar.

al-Akhbar also reported that the ship would unload the fuel at a Syrian port, before being transported to Lebanon via tankers.

Informed sources also claim that two further Iranian ships will offload fuel supplies by the same route, with a fourth ship allegedly due to depart Iran for Lebanon soon.

On 19th August, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, declared Iranian fuel shipments would commence to ease the effects of desperate shortages, and has since announced further shipments.

Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, also yesterday confirmed Tehran is ready to sell further shipments of fuel to Lebanon as is needed.

On Tuesday, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker and Hezbollah ally, Nabih Berri, said he welcomed any support to help the country navigate its crisis, including from Iran.

However, on Wednesday Lebanese caretaker energy minister, Raymond Ghajar, clarified that the government had not received a request for the fuel imports stating: “our role is restricted to import permits, we did not receive a request for permission”.

Hezbollah’s political opponents have denounced Hezbollah’s unilateral action, with former Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, raising concerns that the move risks drawing the imposition of sanctions from the U.S.

Conversely, Nasrallah has stated that Caesar sanctions imposed on Syria and many Lebanese firms by the U.S. in 2019, which targeted the energy sector amongst others, have already been the major cause of Lebanon’s ongoing financial and fuel crisis.

Lebanon’s current financial crisis has its roots in the fiscal policies of decades past. For the last 30 years, Lebanon’s private banks have charged approximately 5 to 10 times the prevailing global interest rates on government bonds. As a result, today Lebanon has the third highest debt to GDP ratio in the world and continues to suffer the consequences in many forms.  

Having defaulted on its debts last year, the devastating explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4th 2020, which killed 218, injured 7000, left 300,000 homeless, and caused $15 billion in property damage, also saw the destruction of a port providing a last lifeline to an already struggling economy. The country is now in a deep economic crisis, which has seen the value of the Lebanese pound decrease by 90% against the U.S. dollar.

Earlier in August, Lebanon’s Central Bank Governor, Riad Salameh, stated the bank could no longer offer vital fuel subsidies, which have been draining reserves in a time of continued financial crisis.

The sharp rise in prices and scarcity caused by the move has seen catastrophic effects, with outages and blackouts experienced across the country, leaving many vital sectors such as hospitals in a critical condition.

Caretaker Prime Minister, Hassan Diab, has labelled the bank’s decision as “illegal”, while the head of the Free Patriotic Movement in Lebanon, Gebran Bassil, called it “the implementation of a conspiracy”.

President Michael Aoun’s efforts to arrange an emergency meeting to address the crises have also been thwarted by disagreements, sectarian divides and political infighting, which has been characteristic of Lebanon’s political deadlock over the past 12 months.

Lebanon’s renewed tragedy and political wrangling, has since August last year elicited a predatory response from NATO nations and supranational institutions alike.

On 6th August, just two days after the blast last year, French president Emmanuel Macron made a surprise visit to the former French colony, appearing on the streets of Beirut in a surprise show of supposed solidarity.

Having organised an online donor summit raising 250 million euros to donate to Lebanon, he also declared the intention of his visit was to “talk to all political forces”, and “propose a new political pact to them”. By the following month, Macron’s tone had hardened to threatening sanctions, and a forfeiture of aid if steps toward political reform were not made in within a 3 month deadline.

A reform package of $10 billion proposed by The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in April last year, has also continually stalled due to disputes with the Lebanon’s central bank and lenders, and deadlock in the formation of a new government.

In April, director of the IMF’s Middle East and Asia department, Jihad Azour, told Reuters that “this reform package is the starting point”, but declared the need for “a new government who will lead the implementation of this reform programme”.

Additionally, Azour stated reforms should focus on the financial sector, public finance, governance, and loss-making utilities, yet his sentiments may ring hollow and all too familiar with many Lebanese citizens and international observers.

In January 2007, following the 2006 Israel-Lebanon border war, a donor’s conference was held in Paris known as Paris III, which pledged to support Lebanon’s post war reconstruction, and provide funds to service debts and cover deficits.

This reform plan also proposed structural reforms to increase productivity and boost economic competitiveness, and a privatisation programme designed to expand investment, reduce public debt, and stimulate economic growth.

The lived experience of Lebanese citizens, however, was a long way from the rose-tinted perspectives of international donors, with households experiencing a 15% increase in expenditures, and much of the donated funds being spent on the reconstruction of wealthier districts of Beirut.

Hezbollah, by comparison during the post-war period, offered millions in cash compensation payments to families that had lost their homes in the fighting.

The loans and reforms still eagerly pushed on Lebanon by NATO nations and Washington based financial bodies, are not only reminiscent of the post-crisis reforms hoisted on Lebanon in 2007, but also the economic shock therapies that befell Chile in 1975, and Russia in the early 90’s, which both caused widespread poverty and civil unrest.

Likewise, Hezbollah’s ongoing deals and negotiations with Tehran, reflect their continued effort to undermine the West’s attempts to assert regional authority, and a functional political alliance deemed intolerable to regional powers Israel and Saudi Arabia.

As was the case in 2007, there are those that will label Hezbollah’s moves an opportune PR move, and others a genuine and much needed step toward alleviating the suffering of Lebanese people. Nonetheless, their presence as both a politically and militarily dominant force in the country, presents a major obstacle to the Wests ploys toward regional hegemony, and simultaneously one of the primary motivations for them.

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