Iran-Lebanon: Have there been any changes to their Inter-State Relations?

30 Jan 2023


Iran-Lebanon: Have there been any changes to their Inter-State Relations?

By Viktor Mikhin

New Eastern Outlook

January 30, 2023


During an official visit to Lebanon on January 13, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian stated that Lebanese politicians could fill the months-long presidential vacancy through dialogue and without foreign intervention. He denied that his country is meddling in Lebanese affairs, but said at a press conference that Iran will remain Lebanon’s “loyal friend” during the current economic crisis. He also reiterated Tehran’s willingness to assist Lebanon in supplying fuel and rebuilding its dilapidated power plants.

During his trip to Syria, Amir-Abdollahian met with Lebanon’s acting Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, and Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. The Iranian minister stated that Tehran wishes to assist in restoring calm in the region and is open to any rapprochement, particularly with Saudi Arabia. He emphatically stated that his government did not interfere in Lebanon’s presidential elections in any way. His tone was diametrically opposed to bellicose statements made a few years ago at the height of Iranian influence in four neighboring Arab capitals.

Iran’s policy toward Lebanon is frequently criticized, and Tehran is routinely blamed for a variety of issues, ranging from preventing the formation of new governments to interfering with the investigation into the August 2020 Beirut port bombings to sabotaging elections for a new president after former President Michel Aoun’s term expired last October. The main reason that Lebanon’s parliament has been unable to elect a new president is that Hezbollah and its allies insist on pre-screening any potential candidate to ensure that he is not opposed to the “Axis of Resistance.” As the reader may be aware, Hezbollah, Iran, the Syrian government, and Palestine have formed an unofficial anti-Western and anti-Israel alliance.

The Lebanese parliament has held ten sessions since September to elect a new president, but to no avail. Hezbollah and its allies either cast blank ballots and then leave the parliament, or they do not appear, failing to meet the required quorum of 86 of the 122 deputies. Opponents of Iranian influence have proposed keeping the vote open until a new president is elected, or electing a new president by a majority of 65 votes if a minimum consensus for a candidate cannot be reached in the first round, as required by the Lebanese constitution.

Amir-Abdollahian addressed economic issues during his visit to Beirut. He specifically stated that his country is willing to assist Lebanon in repairing two power plants, one in Beirut and one in the country’s south, in order to ensure the republic’s stable electricity system. Proposals for energy cooperation are frequently fraught with controversy, with fears that if Lebanon accepts Iranian assistance, it will face US sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program.

A technical team from Lebanon had previously visited Iran to discuss energy cooperation. However, when Washington refused to give the go-ahead, the Lebanese took no further action. Lebanon, which is in the grip of a severe economic crisis, is seeking international assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other Western organizations. Lebanon is unlikely to jeopardize this much-needed aid by negotiating an energy deal with Iran, which could lead to accusations that Iran is using this cooperation to avoid US sanctions.

Amir-Abdollahian also addressed the emerging relationship between Iranian and Saudi security officials following the Baghdad 2 summit in Jordan last December during his press conference. He expressed hope that political contacts would continue, potentially leading to the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Riyadh and the establishment of Saudi and Iranian consulates in Mashhad and Jeddah, respectively, to facilitate religious tourism. Given that Tehran had recently accused Riyadh of fomenting the protests that erupted in Iran last September, the Iranian tone was surprisingly positive and welcoming.

On the Syria issue, Amir-Abdollahian reiterated his government’s support for a Russian-brokered rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara. Restoring relations between Syria and Turkey would “completely change” the political situation in Syria, he said, adding that the best way to resolve the Syrian crisis would be to include Damascus in the Russian-backed Astana process and give it a seat at the negotiating table alongside Moscow, Tehran and Ankara. However, this “new path” of rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus does not include Tehran, except perhaps as an observer and active ally in the peaceful resolution of the Syrian conflict unleashed at the time by the West and some Gulf states. It should also be recalled that Iran did not attend the meeting of Russian, Syrian, and Turkish defense ministers in Moscow in December, and the same will be true for the upcoming meeting of the three countries’ foreign ministers.

It is unlikely that Amir-Abdollahian’s visit to Beirut was part of an initiative to help Lebanon break its current political impasse. Iran itself is in crisis due to the anti-government protests that have rocked the country since the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested in Iran last September for violating dress codes. Public outrage in Iran has been further fueled by the economic crisis, which has been exacerbated by rising energy prices. Contrary to earlier expectations to focus regional and international attention on Lebanon’s troubles, the West’s hypocritical condemnation of Tehran’s crackdown on protesters in Iran appears to have put any action on hold. In December, US President Joe Biden announced that he would not resume negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and many European capitals recalled their ambassadors from Iran to protest the execution of some Iranian protesters. Meanwhile, the fact that several policemen were killed and dozens of others were injured in the demonstrations is somehow hushed up and not seen by the so-called democratic press in the West.

Given the Iranian leadership’s dim prospects for further resolution of the Syrian conflict, it appears to have decided to consult with its closest allies in Beirut and Damascus, as well as to use Beirut as a platform to send conciliatory messages throughout the region and conduct some “probing” in Riyadh. If Iran can facilitate contacts that lead to regional reconciliation and the peace process, it will provide Tehran with some breathing room in the face of enormous pressure from the US and Europe. While Iran had hoped for a reduction in Western sanctions until recently, domestic political developments may force it to face new sanctions.

The question now is whether Riyadh will respond to the clear Iranian signals. If it decides to reciprocate despite European and US pressure, further steps toward rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could lead to a breakthrough in the Lebanese political crisis that would result in the election of a new president, the formation of a new government, and the provision of an aid package by Saudi Arabia, probably in return for the reduction of Iranian influence in Lebanon. But the political will for reconciliation in the region – as opposed to a tendency toward intransigence – depends on which winds are blowing internationally. This is also true of Lebanon’s presidential elections, which often attract a great deal of attention in Western capitals, especially Washington and Paris. As a result, the electoral process in Lebanon is rarely purely domestic or even regional, and international election observation is often a critical factor in the process.

In any case, Amir-Abdollahian’s visit to Beirut could be a first step toward a regional normalization process and have a positive impact on the overall domestic political situation in Lebanon. However, if the Iranian minister’s visit does not elicit a “positive reaction” and nothing comes of it, it will be just another diplomatic step that will not change anything in deeply crisis-ridden Lebanon.

Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, exclusively for the online journal “New Eastern Outlook”.