Iran Silent On Bankrupt Lebanon Entering Energy Talks With Israel
While Lebanon and Israel held another brokered round of talks over their disputed maritime border this week, the Islamic Republic of Iran remained strangely silent, despite its rejection of ties or cooperation with the “Zionist enemy.”
Iran’s Lebanese Shiite allies, Hezbollah and the Amal movement could have said no to talks with Israel proposed by the United States and the United Nations. But Nabih Berri, an old political hand as head of Amal and speaker Lebanon’s parliament, himself in September announced Lebanon would enter negotiations.
Questions arise as to whether Iran did not want or was not able to prevent these talks, which some believe could be a stepping-stone toward normalization between two neighbors technically still at war since 1948. It is hard to see how Iran’s Shiite allies in Lebanon would consider talks with Israel without Tehran’s approval.
Iranian government officials aside, even firebrand anti-Israeli hardliners and their media outlets have not uttered any criticism or negative comments on the talks. Some have published the news in a low-key manner, quoting Arab media. In contrast, the normalization of relations between Israel and two Persian Gulf Arab states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, triggered harsh attacks from senior Iranian leaders, state media and politicians of all stripes.
This kind of blanket silence in Iran can happen only if there is a central, high-level political decision to mute the loudspeakers, which in turn means that Tehran for one reason or another allowed the border talks to take place, given Iran’s influence on its Shiite allies in Lebanon.
The only plausible explanation is that Hezbollah and Amal were able to convince the Islamic Republic to agree to the talks, because if successful, they would open the door to gas and oil explorations in the Mediterranean and a lifeline for the bankrupt Lebanese state and the cash-strapped Hezbollah.
Iran, which for years has been supporting Hezbollah with an estimated 500-700 million dollars a year, has fallen under dire financial pressures because of harsh US sanctions since mid-2018. Facing a money crunch, Tehran is believed to have reduced payments to Hezbollah.
The prospects for Iran returning to the heyday of $100 billion annual oil income are not bright. US sanctions, which have reduced Iranian crude exports by almost 90 percent, are likely to linger for a long time even if President Donald Trump’s Democratic challenger Joe Biden wins the election next week. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic has dampened demand for oil, which now trades at less than half its value compared with a decade ago when prices topped $100 per barrel.
Hezbollah – many of whose leaders have been sanctioned by the US – realizes that counting on substantial assistance from Iran is not realistic. Lebanon has faced empty coffers for more than a year, with popular demonstrations breaking out in October 2019, and with Beirut defaulting on loans the West has refused further financial assistance without major political reform to curb endemic corruption. But as Iran’s assistance has been reduced, Hezbollah has called on its members to get government jobs.
At the same time, Hezbollah’s political branch in Europe has come under pressure and has been banned in many EU countries this year. The so-called ‘non-military’ Hezbollah played a major role in financing the organization from abroad, complementing Iran’s assistance. At the same time, the US killing of Iran’s Qods Force commander Qasem Soleimani in January left a void in strong Hezbollah advocacy in Tehran.
In short, facing multiple challenges, Hezbollah along with other Lebanese political groups is looking for a financial escape hatch. Seabed oil and gas offer a tantalizing prospect if agreement can be reached with Israel. Iran has probably been forced to acquiesce because it is short of hard currency to offer Hezbollah or to assist the Lebanese government.