An important guest visited Lebanon in recent days: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. He met in Beirut with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and senior Lebanese government officials.
These meetings dealt with the consequences of the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the situation in Lebanon, as well as the election of a new Lebanese president.
Amir-Abdollahian’s visit was an Iranian message to the Lebanese that following the Iran-Saudi agreement, Iran does not intend to surrender its influence on Lebanon.
However, other than offering Lebanon power stations and “bilateral cooperation in the electricity and gas sectors,” Amir-Abdollahian held out no hint of aid for Lebanon’s collapsing economy.
“Of course, the U.S. pressures and fear-mongering about sanctions are among the problems in this regard, but you should know that the U.S. sanctions have failed,” he added, according to the Tehran Times.
[Editor’s note: In November 2022, Samantha Power, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, visited Lebanon and announced a grant of $72 million in emergency food assistance. In March 2023, the European Union announced €60 million ($66 million) in humanitarian aid. Since 2012, the United States has provided $3 billion in humanitarian assistance to Lebanon.]
The Iranian minister also visited southern Lebanon together with Hezbollah representatives, observed the border with Israel and expressed his support for the Lebanese resistance. “We are here today … to declare again with a loud voice that we support the resistance in Lebanon against the Zionist entity,” he declared.
Amir-Abdollahian also met with the leader of Iran’s foremost proxy in the Palestinian camp, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The Iranian foreign minister held several meetings at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut with more than 20 members of the Lebanese Parliament, and emphasized the need for the Lebanese to reach an agreement among themselves regarding the country’s new president.
In other words, he clearly hinted that Iran recommends that they align themselves with Hezbollah, which promotes the candidacy of former minister Suleiman Franjieh for the presidency.
Franjieh himself expresses optimism that the situation in Lebanon will improve in light of the changes in the region, chief among them the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the rapprochement of Saudi Arabia with Syria. He is encouraged by the fact that France supports his candidacy, and by Hezbollah’s insistence on continuing to support him as the next president.
Hezbollah is sending a clear message to the Lebanese that Franjieh is the only possible candidate, and that failure to support him will mean an extended political vacuum.
Hezbollah is looking for a puppet, just like the previous president, General Michel Aoun. While France, a significant supporter, supports Franjieh’s candidacy, there is strong opposition to him in the Lebanese domestic arena. Two Christian blocs oppose his candidacy: the “Free National Party” and “The Lebanese Forces Party.” They are working to thwart his election, citing the Lebanese constitution, which states that a president must be elected by the parliament with a two-thirds majority.
Franjieh is considered by his opponents to be corrupt, part of the government apparatus that has looted Lebanon’s finances in recent years, and a puppet of Syria. For them, his election as president means handing Lebanon over to Iran, strengthening its hegemony in Lebanon.
Franjieh, for his part, launched a campaign of courting and flattering all the parties in Lebanon, as well as Saudi Arabia, a few days ago. He stated that he has no hostility towards Saudi Arabia and only wants good for the Arabs and Saudi Arabia.
Hezbollah is optimistic regarding Franjieh’s chances. Sheikh Naim Kassem, Hezbollah deputy secretary-general, said on April 28, 2023, that the positive signs are increasing day by day, and that Hezbollah supports Franjieh because he is worthy to be the president.
Throughout the years, Saudi Arabia has had a significant influence on Lebanese politics, and the situation is no different now. Lebanon cannot recover economically without the help of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries.
Hezbollah is convinced that Saudi Arabia’s agreement with Iran will have a positive effect on the resolution of several disputes and conflicts in the Middle East, such as achieving a ceasefire and a political solution to the war in Yemen, in which Saudi Arabia is involved, and also on the issue of the Lebanese election.
Hezbollah is now waiting for Iran to convince Saudi Arabia to support Franjieh’s candidacy.
Saudi Arabia is biding its time to see whether Iran will deliver the goods when it comes to ending the war in Yemen.
Iran is interested in showing the world that its agreement with Saudi Arabia is not a fraud and that by following it, the Middle East can be moved in a more positive direction. One of the most prominent issues is reaching an agreement on the issue of the Lebanese presidential elections.
Hezbollah put Franjieh at the forefront of the political stage in Lebanon and sent a clear message to the Lebanese: this was their next president, whom they must accept because there were no other suitable candidates.
Franjieh is trying to publicly disavow his support for Syria and membership in the “resistance axis” led by Iran. In media interviews in Lebanon, he claims that he will not be a “shadow president” and does not take orders from any party.
The Lebanese public, however, is not buying the goods Franjieh is trying to sell. As things seem now, a lot depends on the question of what Saudi Arabia’s final position on the issue will be, and whether Iran will be able to soften it.
Franjieh’s election will strengthen Iran’s hegemony in Lebanon and the region, and, of course, would be unsuitable for Israel and the United States.
Lebanon needs to achieve political stability, but if Franjieh is elected it will become even more of an Iranian proxy.
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israeli radio and television, is a senior Middle East analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.