Analysis-United States, Iran and inertia, an axis to cushion the Lebanese dreams of France

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PARIS (Reuters) – During a visit to Paris last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear that Washington was not satisfied with France’s strategy to help resolve the economic and political crisis in the Lebanon.

FILE PHOTO: A soldier stands at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon August 6, 2020. Thibault Camus / Pool via REUTERS / File Photo

French President Emmanuel Macron spearheaded international efforts to save the former French protectorate from its deepest crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. He has been to Lebanon twice since a huge explosion at the port of Beirut in August devastated the city.

Macron is trying to use Paris’s historic influence in the former French protectorate to persuade bickering Lebanese politicians to adopt a roadmap and form a new government tasked with rooting out corruption, a prerequisite for them. international donors, including the IMF, to unlock billions of dollars in aid.

He was due to return for a third visit on December 22, but postponed the trip on Thursday after testing positive for coronavirus. An official involved in organizing the visit said he could speak by phone with Lebanese President Michel Aoun but that there were no other plans at the moment.

The 42-year-old leader was confronted from the start with the inertia of Lebanon’s restless political class, which bickered and ignored international warnings of the state’s bankruptcy, as well as resistance to his plans from Washington. .

“The Lebanese political class is stuck in its own contradictions and is happy to play the clock,” said Nadim Khoury of the Arab Reform Initiative.

“(Prime Minister designate) Saad al-Hariri is unable to form a government and at the international level the United States will not facilitate France’s efforts to form a government.”

The US objection to Macron’s plan centers on Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed armed movement that wields enormous power in Lebanon and which Washington calls a terrorist group.

Hariri, a former prime minister, was tasked with forming a government after Mustapha Adib resigned in September. He has so far struggled to concoct a cabinet to share power with all Lebanese parties, including Hezbollah.

Paris initially did not want Hariri to take on this role, having previously failed to implement reforms, three French officials said. But given the lack of progress in forming a credible government, Macron did not oppose the nomination.

France claims that the elected branch of Hezbollah has a legitimate political role.

The United States has already imposed sanctions on three political leaders allied with Hezbollah. At a dinner in Paris last month with eight ambassadors, including from Europe, Pompeo made it clear that further action would follow if Hezbollah was in government, according to two people familiar with his visit.

The deadlock has important ramifications for all parties.

Without the support of the United States, international organizations and donors will not give Lebanon the money it needs to get out of a financial crisis that the World Bank says will likely see more than half of the population. engulfed in poverty by 2021.

Macron, having sworn amid the rubble in Beirut not to abandon the Lebanese people, scrambles to show some success in foreign policy in the region after walking empty-handed for high-level initiatives on Libya and the ‘Iran in recent years.

For the outgoing US administration, a firm stance on Hezbollah, which it considers a terrorist group, is essential to demonstrate that its comprehensive Middle East policy, including maximum pressure on Iran, has been effective.

Three diplomats said they did not expect President-elect Joe Biden to change policy quickly given the bipartisan nature of the U.S. position and other priorities of the new administration.

Biden has said he plans to do away with what he calls the “dangerous failure” of President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure policy on Iran, but people close to his thinking said he would hesitate. not to use sanctions.

SIGNAGE SIGNS

Differences with Washington exacerbate what was always going to be a difficult challenge for Macron.

When he had lunch with Lebanese President Michel Aoun and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on September 1, his aim was to ensure that Berri, leader of the Shiite Muslim movement Amal, agrees to meet a deadline to form a new government.

Macron insisted on 10 to 15 days, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Berri, a pillar of Lebanese politics who in the past played a role in the selection of key ministers, replied twice with “Insha’allah” (God willing), a polite manner sometimes used in the Middle East to react to something you don’t do. t want to do. Macron extended his palm to say no and once again insist on his demands.

Berri’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Macron’s office said: “The president is continuing his appeals with the various political actors in Lebanon as he had previously engaged.”

A week later, although Macron said he had convinced all factions to support his plan, the United States blacklisted two former ministers, including one from Amal, for their links to Hezbollah.

“You are right to say that the US administration’s sanctions policy, carried out without consultation or coordination with us, put a strain on the game,” Macron said shortly after, when asked whether the United States United are not in favor of his efforts.

Since then, Gebran Bassil, Aoun’s son-in-law, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s largest Christian party, has been sanctioned for his links with Hezbollah. US, EU and regional diplomats say new sanctions are imminent.

PUNITIVE MEASURES

Hezbollah has emerged as the supreme power in Lebanon, with elected members of parliament and government positions. While its support for Iran has been hit by US sanctions, the group remains a mainstay of Tehran’s regional influence.

French officials say Washington’s punitive measures have done nothing to change the situation on the ground. A French presidential official told reporters on December 2 “that they haven’t blocked anything… but haven’t released anything either. “

Speaking at an online CSIS think tank conference, US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea said that while it was “first and foremost” to avoid the failure of the As a state in Lebanon, Washington viewed Hezbollah as “entirely at the service of its Iranian masters” and the United States said. measures had an effect.

Israel, the closest US ally in the Middle East, sees Iran as its greatest threat and Hezbollah as the main danger at its borders.

Iranian officials have said Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is in contact with Tehran on how to handle Macron’s initiative, but they would not allow Hezbollah to be weakened.

Macron has meanwhile been ordered to reprimand Lebanese politicians for betraying their commitments.

“To date, these commitments have not been kept,” he said on December 2. “So far, nothing shows that they were more than words. I regret. “

Reporting by John Irish; additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Beirut, Michel Rose in Paris and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai; edited by Giles Elgood and Nick Tattersall

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