The US ambassador to Lebanon, Dorothy Shea, confirmed recently that the Biden administration is facilitating the export of Egyptian natural gas and Jordanian surplus electricity to Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon via Syria. Shea’s remarks came after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s announcement that Iran was sending Lebanon shipments of fuel.
Even though the effort to wheel Egyptian gas had been reported last month, the coincidence in timing has led to a flurry of speculative commentary in Lebanon about the supposed meaning of the American initiative.
Always eager to see their affairs as the center of global intrigue, Lebanese commentators quickly weaved grandiose theories, tying the US plan to geopolitical threads that are as convoluted as they are fictional. Instead, the announcement is another misstep in Biden-era US policy that will benefit Iran’s Lebanese interests and its local arm, Hezbollah.
At the heart of the Lebanese speculative analysis is the conceit that the US is competing with Iran over Lebanon. By bringing gas and electricity from Arab countries through Syria, the argument goes, the US is countering Hezbollah, and preventing Lebanon from falling entirely into Iran’s orbit. Leaving aside the fact that Lebanon has been an Iranian satrapy for well over a decade – what does falling “entirely” even mean in this context? – this reading is off on all counts. It is confused both about the Biden administration’s regional posture as well as about the conduit for its latest initiative, namely Syria.
For the American plan to work, the Biden team would require the cooperation of the Assad regime and would therefore need to waive sanctions on Damascus. In other words, the administration would throw a lifeline to Iran’s other vassal, whom Tehran continues to prop up with assistance, ranging from funding to fuel shipments, and the support of a host of militias, led by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah maintains control of a stretch of territory in western Syria along the border with Lebanon. Ongoing Israeli strikes in this region, from Homs to Qusayr down to the area west of Damascus, is a testament to the group’s, and the Revolutionary Guard’s, entrenchment, and to the concentration of their military infrastructure in this area.
The area in question is also home to the transit point for the Egyptian natural gas, which Lebanon would receive through the Arab Gas Pipeline. The pipeline runs from Egypt to Jordan and Syria. From Homs, it would connect to the Deir Ammar plant in northern Lebanon.
After years of war, however, the Syrian section of the pipeline likely requires repairs. Shea might have alluded to this already, with her comments that there will be “some logistical things that need to happen too.” That is to say, this initiative will require investment in Syria, which is under US sanctions.
Speaking to Al Arabiya, Shea said she recognized that sanctions imposed on the Assad regime under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 posed an obstacle to the plan. Nevertheless, she expressed the administration’s determination to work around this hurdle: “There is a will to make this happen.”
The administration is looking to fund its plan through the World Bank. Washington’s discussions with the World Bank also covered financing the cost of repairs to the electric transmission lines and maintenance of the gas pipelines, the office of the Lebanese president said following an August 19 phone call between President Michel Aoun and Shea.
In other words, the Biden administration is looking to secure investment to rehabilitate infrastructure in Syria. This is on top of the transit fees Assad will demand and, presumably, collect.
Underscoring the falsehood of the conceit of competition with Iran, or of an alleged Hezbollah concern over wheeling energy through Syria, Nasrallah has welcomed the US plan. After all, Washington’s initiative is a positive development for both Hezbollah and its Syrian ally – Assad will receive sanctions waivers and potential investment, while Hezbollah maintains its position on both sides of the border.
Hezbollah’s support for the deal is further seen in the Lebanese delegation that will discuss the deal with the Syrians. Reportedly, it will be led by Hezbollah’s trusted troubleshooter and emissary, General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the General Security Directorate.
Most importantly, Nasrallah could not have missed the US ambassador’s response to his announcement on Iranian fuel shipments. Far from voicing opposition, never mind a threat to enforce sanctions, Shea seemingly offered only acquiescence: “I don’t think anyone is going to fall on their sword if someone’s able to get fuel into hospitals that need it.” The only objection Shea mustered was a feeble jab at Hezbollah’s reliability, questioning whether the terrorist group would distribute the Iranian fuel to all of Lebanon: “I ask you, can you count on Hezbollah to do that?”
Shea’s implicit acquiescence is in line with the posture of the administration she represents. As it set out to appease the Iranian regime in an effort to revive Barack Obama’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Team Biden has waived sanctions on Iran’s oil trade to allow the regime to access frozen funds from sales to Japan and South Korea. In addition, the administration pointedly has not enforced sanctions on Iran’s oil trade with China.
It’s unclear whether the Iranian fuel shipments to Lebanon will unload directly there or will head to Syria and be brought in overland. The latter option poses some problems to the Lebanese theory regarding the alleged antagonism between Nasrallah’s announcement – the “Iranian plan” – and the wheeling of Egyptian gas through Syria – the “American-Arab plan” – which supposedly would cause friction between Tehran and Damascus.
A tweet by Lebanese Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt captured how worthless these flights of fancy are. “Egyptian gas through Syria and Iranian fuel by sea, or via Iran – pardon me, Syria – or Russia, I don’t know.” Jumblatt’s quip shows how silly it is to build wild theories on a false and utterly meaningless distinction between Iran and its client, the Assad regime.
Either way, by seemingly acquiescing to the Iranian shipment and by actively looking to waive sanctions on Assad, the Biden administration’s posture is a win for Iran. Much like the Lebanese commentators, Team Biden will likely defend its initiative by arguing that it would serve the greater good of helping Lebanon or, better still, of countering Hezbollah.
This episode perfectly encapsulates the core problem with the very concept of a US “Lebanon policy.” Under the pretense of attempting to “save” Lebanon, US policy sets itself on a path which inexorably leads to shoring up the Iranian-dominated order led by Hezbollah. By definition, Washington’s “Lebanon policy,” whose proponents often will market it as an arena of competition with Iran, is, structurally, a pro-Iran policy.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay.