Iran’s Larijani in Lebanon viewed as signal of Beirut's pivot toward Iran axis

Iranian Speaker of Parliament Ali Larijani’s unannounced visit to Lebanon is a signal to the international community that Tehran is seeking to drag Lebanon closer to the Iranian axis.

Larijani reportedly offered aid to help Lebanon address a financial crisis, but experts say Iran is unlikely to deliver, given its own economic struggles at home.

The first foreign official to visit Beirut since new Prime Minister Hassan Diab formed a government, Larijani said Tehran is ready to help Lebanon through its current economic and currency crises. Diab's government was selected exclusively by parties from the Iran-backed Hezbollah-allied bloc, previously known as the March 8 coalition.

Larijani's visit has therefore been seen as Iran attempting to boost its influence in Lebanon with the new government. In Beirut, Larijani met with Lebanese officials, including President Michel Aoun, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Diab, and Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah, who does not hold any official position in government.

Speaking at a press conference Monday, Larijani said, “Lebanon is going through a sensitive stage, and we hope that the new government headed by Hassan Diab will be able to overcome all difficulties, and we are fully prepared to cooperate with the Lebanese government in all areas.”

Aoun Larijani - Lebanese Presidency Twitter.jpeg

Aoun Larijani - Lebanese Presidency Twitter.jpeg

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Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani attends a news conference at the Iranian embassy in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon. (Reuters)

Iranian parliament speaker Ali Larijani attends a news conference at the Iranian embassy in Beirut's southern suburbs, Lebanon. (Reuters)

Iran unable to offer much

Larijani “called for promoting Tehran-Beirut relations and expressed his country's readiness for helping Lebanon in the economic, trade, industrial, pharmaceutical, scientific, cultural, agricultural, and military arenas,” according to Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency. He noted specifically that Iran might be able to help Lebanon with their chronic electricity problem by providing technological support.

However, he did not specify how much aid was on offer, or what form it would take, making some observers skeptical.

“What the Iranians are capable of providing I would imagine to be fairly limited, given their dire financial situation,” said Firas Maksad, a Washington-based consultant on Middle East policy and adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Elliot School for International Affairs.

Iran had, in the past, offered to provide Lebanon with more affordable, Iranian-made medications – which could help in the current situation in which Lebanon could face shortages of imported drugs due to the lack of dollars in the country – noted Maksad. Already, Lebanon has had to ration dialysis supplies and some medical equipment is in short supply.

Iran has also offered military aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces, he said, but accepting such assistance could lead to the US cutting its military aid.

Surprise visit drew critical responses

Larijani’s had not been invited and his visit came as a surprise to many Lebanese officials, said Maksad.

“It caught Lebanese officials off guard and put them in a difficult situation politically,” Maksad said, given how the visit was likely to be perceived by Western countries, which have already been wary of the new Lebanese government.

Larijani also praised Hezbollah and advocated for Lebanon to turn away from the US and Saudi Arabia, saying that if Lebanese officials “hold out their hand for help to the US and Saudi Arabia, their crisis will remain unresolved.”

Larijani’s visit and Lebanon’s apparent move toward Iran more generally have been criticized by political leaders in the camp opposed to Hezbollah, formerly known as the March 14 coalition.

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned in November, said Friday, on the anniversary of the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, that the promise of Iranian money “solves a party crisis, not the country’s crisis.”

Ashraf Rifi, a former Minister of Justice and sometime political rival of Hariri within the Sunni community, wrote on Twitter following Larijani’s visit, “Mr. Larijani must know that Lebanon is an independent country, not an Iranian governate, and that illegal weapons will not change its identity.”

Lebanese citizens, whatever their political alliances, are largely eager for the country to stay out of larger geopolitical conflicts.
Abed, a warehouse worker in Beirut who was relaxing on the corniche Tuesday afternoon, told Al Arabiya English that he wants to see Lebanon remain neutral.

“We are a small country, a very small country,” he said. “We don’t want to take sides with anyone – not with Iran, not with Saudi [Arabia], not with England, not with America. We need to be friends with all of them.”

As to the proffered Iranian aid, he said, “If someone wants to come to the country and wants to be a friend to the country, he’s welcome. But if someone wants to come and push his politics, the politics of the country he’s coming from, here, I don’t think that’s right.”

 

US Ambassador meets Diab

The day after Larijani’s visit on Monday, Diab received the US Ambassador to Lebanon, Elizabeth Richard, a potential signal that the new government does not want to entirely pivot away from the West. On Wednesday, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias arrived in Beirut.

According to the state National News Agency, the meeting “focused on the most recent developments in Lebanon and the region. The pair also discussed the best means to boost US-Lebanese bilateral ties.”

The embassy declined to give a statement following the meeting.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 10:01 - GMT 07:01
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