Having established its status and presence in Syria, it appears that Iran, which has a great deal of influence in Lebanon’s political system and daily life via Hezbollah, now seeks to further strengthen its direct control of the country by infiltrating its institutions and its vital areas, first and foremost the military and also energy and health. This is aimed at, among other things, opening up the Lebanese market for Iranian goods, which have a very limited market because of the U.S. sanctions on Iran.[1]

On Feb. 6, about a week after the announcement of the new Lebanese government, in which the pro-Syria and pro-Iran March 8 camp holds a majority of seats, and on the eve of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s visit to the country, Hezbollah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah proposed to the Lebanese people that they accept aid from Iran, calling Iran “a great and true friend who wants nothing from us.” Nasrallah suggested importing weapons from Iran that, he said, would “make the Lebanese Army the strongest in the region,” and pointed out Iran’s willingness to supply Lebanon with medicines and help solve its electricity problems as well.[2] Nasrallah’s statement appears to have been aimed at priming Lebanese public opinion for Zarif’s visit, two days later. Indeed, Zarif himself announced, upon arriving in Beirut, that his country was “willing to meet Lebanon’s military and economic needs.”[3]

In meetings with Lebanese officials, headed by President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Zarif reiterated the offer of aid to Lebanon. In an attempt to dispel Lebanese apprehensions regarding the ramifications of accepting aid from Iran because of the sanctions on it, Zarif stressed: “No international law prevents Iran and Lebanon from cooperating with each other.”[4] He also proposed that Iran and Lebanon work together in arrangements similar to those that Iran has arrived at with a number of European countries, and with Russia, Turkey and China, that would allow Lebanon to evade punishment for violating the sanctions.[5] Likewise, in an attempt to underline how Lebanon would benefit economically from increasing its trade with Iran, Zarif proposed that transactions would be in Lebanese pounds—that is, Lebanon would not have to use foreign currency in its dealings with Iran.[6]

This is not the first time Iran has offered Lebanon military and economic aid. In 2014, it was offered and rejected, apparently because of a U.S. veto. This time, Iran’s task will be easier because the March 8 camp, headed by Hezbollah, has strengthened, and the March 14 camp, headed by Hariri, which is close to Saudi Arabia and opposes Hezbollah, is weakened. The new government, established Jan. 30, comprises 30 ministers—18 of them belonging to the March 8 camp. Also, the new defense minister, Elias Bou Saab of the Free Patriotic Movement, which is headed by Aoun who is considered close to Hezbollah, has not said anything to rule out accepting Iran’s proposal.

More than anything else, what happens with Iran’s proposal depends on how much pressure the United States and European countries bring to bear on Lebanon. In recent months, a struggle for control of Lebanon is becoming evident, with Iran on one side and the United States and its Arab allies on the other. The United States had already identified the risk of a Lebanese government with a pro-Iran majority, and before its establishment several American officials visited Lebanon to warn Lebanese officials not to appoint Hezbollah politicians to top ministerial posts such as health minister, and also to warn about the ramifications of rapprochement with Iran. It also may be no coincidence that, days after Zarif’s Lebanon visit, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut announced that America had delivered to Lebanon precision-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS) rockets for the A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, worth $16 million.[7] Furthermore, in her meeting with Defense Minister Bou Saab, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, Elizabeth Richard, stressed that the United States is the strongest supporter of the Lebanese Army and would continue to support it.[8]

In addition, the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar reported that the United States was pressuring the Arab countries to offer aid to Lebanon, in an attempt to strengthen the March 14 camp and prevent Lebanon from needing Iranian aid.[9] It is not inconceivable that these pressures led to the Lebanon visit by Nizar Al-Aloula, an adviser in the office of the Saudi king, only one day after as Zarif’s visit. In Lebanon, Al-Aloula expressed his hope that the 20 Lebanese-Saudi agreements already signed would soon be implemented.[10] Also during his visit, Saudi Arabia announced that it was lifting its travel ban to Lebanon.[11]

Unsurprisingly, Nasrallah’s and Zarif’s proposals that Lebanon accept military aid from Iran sparked a heated debate between the March 8 camp and the March 14 camp. Hezbollah supporters argued that Lebanon’s economic circumstances made it impossible for it to reject Iran’s offer, particularly when practically nothing was being asked of it in return, and that this was a test of Lebanon’s independence of the West. They stressed that Iran was willing to equip the Lebanese Army with weapons that could deter Israel and that the United States was keeping the Lebanese Army from obtaining.

The March 14 camp, on the other hand, argued that accepting Iran’s proposal could bring Lebanon into conflict with the United States and Saudi Arabia and thus put at risk the tremendous amount of aid it receives from the United States—aid so large in scale that Iran would not be able to compensate Lebanon for its loss, particularly in light of the harsh sanctions on it. They also expressed doubts about Iran’s ability to follow through on its proposals, even if Lebanon did accept them. Furthermore, they expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the air defense systems that Iran proposed giving Lebanon, and asked why Iran was not using them itself to thwart Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria.

It should be noted that in this debate, both anti- and pro-Hezbollah elements speculated that Nasrallah and Iran had made the offer to equip the Lebanese Army because they were certain it would be rejected, thus providing a pretext for Hezbollah to maintain its weapons and making it appear to be the only element capable of defending Lebanon.

This report will review reactions in Lebanon to Iran’s and Hezbollah’s proposals.

Iran’s allies in Lebanon: Lebanon must demonstrate its independence by accepting Iran’s offer

Full story at MEMRI.