During an official visit to Lebanon on 13 January, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said that Lebanese politicians could fill the months-long vacuum in the Lebanese presidency through dialogue and without foreign meddling.
He denied that his country was intervening in Lebanese affairs, but said at a press conference in the Lebanese capital Beirut that Iran would continue to be a “loyal friend” to Lebanon during the current economic crisis in the country.
He also reiterated his country’s willingness to cooperate in providing fuel to Lebanon and rehabilitating its dilapidated power stations.
During his visit, one leg of a foreign tour that also included Syria, Amir-Abdollahian met with acting Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, and Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib, as well as Secretary-General of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah Hassan Nasrallah.
Amir-Abdollahian said Tehran desired to help restore calm to the region and that it was open to any regional rapprochement, particularly with Saudi Arabia. He reiterated his government’s denial that it has interfered in the Lebanese presidential elections in any way. The tone of his comments contrasted starkly with the belligerent tenor of statements made some years ago at the height of Iran’s influence in four Arab capitals.
Iranian policy towards Lebanon often comes in for harsh criticism, and Tehran is routinely blamed for a gamut of problems, from obstructing the formation of new governments to harming investigations into the Beirut Port explosions of August 2020 to frustrating the election of a new president after the end of former president Michel Aoun’s term last October.
The main reason why the Lebanese parliament has been unable to elect a new president is because Hizbullah and its allies insist on vetting any prospective candidate in advance to ascertain that he is not opposed to the “axis of resistance,” referring to the informal anti-Western and anti-Israel alliance between Hizbullah, Iran, the Syrian government and Palestine.
The Lebanese parliament has held ten sessions since last September to vote for a new president, but without success. Either Hizbullah and its allies cast blank ballots and then walk out or they do not show up, preventing the necessary quorum of 86 of the 122 lawmakers.
Opponents of Iranian influence in Lebanon have proposed keeping the voting session open until a new president is elected or permitting the election of a new president with a majority of 65 votes if it is impossible to obtain a minimum consensus in favour of a candidate in the first round, as stipulated in the Lebanese Constitution.
During his visit to Beirut, Amir-Abdollahian said his country was prepared to help Lebanon renovate two electricity generating plants, one in Beirut and another in the south of the country, in order to ensure that Lebanon has a stable electricity system.
But Iranian offers to cooperate with Lebanon on energy often trigger widespread controversy due to fears that Lebanon could be hit by the US sanctions imposed on Iran because of its nuclear programme if it accepts Iranian assistance.
A Lebanese technical team earlier visited Iran to explore energy cooperation, but when Washington refused to give a green light to this, the Lebanese took no further action.
In the grips of a severe economic crisis, Lebanon has been seeking international funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other Western agencies. It is unlikely to risk such desperately needed aid by negotiating an energy deal with Iran, which would cause it be accused of serving as a backdoor for Iran to circumvent the US sanctions.
During his press conference, Amir-Abdollahian also commented on communications between Iranian and Saudi security officials since the Baghdad 2 Summit meeting in Jordan in December. He expressed his hope that the contacts could continue at the political level, leading to the eventual restoration of full relations with Saudi Arabia and the reopening of Saudi and Iranian consulates in Mashhad and Jeddah, respectively, to facilitate religious tourism.
The tone he used was remarkably positive in that Tehran recently accused Riyadh of fuelling the protests that erupted in Iran last September.
In his talks with Nasrallah, Amir-Abdollahian discussed the ramifications of the formation of the most far-right government in Israeli history headed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Although little has been made public about the meeting, it appears that the two men also discussed the future of the Iranian presence in Syria, where Hizbullah militias have been collaborating with Iran, especially in southern Syria, an area vulnerable to Israeli strikes.
On the Syrian question, Amir-Abdollahian said that his government supported the Russian-brokered rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara. The restoration of relations between Syria and Turkey would “totally change” the political situation in Syria, he said, adding that the best way to solve the Syrian crisis would be to bring Damascus on board the Russian-sponsored Astana Process, giving it a seat at the negotiating table alongside Moscow, Tehran, and Ankara.
The new avenue promoting a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus does not include Tehran, apart perhaps from a backseat presence through the Syrian regime. Iran did not take part in the meeting of the Russian, Syrian, and Turkish defence ministers in Moscow in December, and the same thing will apply at the forthcoming meeting of the three countries’ foreign ministers.
It is unlikely that Amir-Abdollahian’s visit to Beirut was part of an initiative to help resolve the current political impasse in Lebanon. Iran is itself in the midst of a crisis due to the anti-government protests that have swept the country since the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman arrested for a dress code violation in Iran last September.
The public anger in Iran has been additionally fuelled by economic straits aggravated by rising energy costs.
Contrary to previous expectations of renewed regional and international attention to Lebanon’s hardships, it appears that the Western condemnation of Tehran’s clampdown on the demonstrators in Iran has put any action on hold. In December, US President Joe Biden said he would not resume talks with Iran in connection with the Iranian nuclear programme, and many European capitals withdrew their ambassadors to Iran in protest against the execution of some Iranian protesters.
With the horizons closed in that direction, Iran has decided to consult with its closest allies in Beirut and Damascus and to use Beirut as a platform to transmit conciliatory messages across the region and send out feelers to Riyadh. If it can foster communications that will lead to a regional reconciliation and peacemaking process, this will give Tehran some breathing space in the face of pressures from the US and Europe.
Whereas until recently Iran had been looking forward to the prospect of an easing of the Western sanctions against it, it may soon face yet another raft of sanctions in connection with domestic developments or alleged Iranian cooperation with Russia in its war in Ukraine.
The question now is whether Riyadh will respond to the Iranian signals. If it does decide to reciprocate, despite European and US pressures, further steps towards a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement could generate a breakthrough in the Lebanese political crisis, leading to the election of a new president, the formation of a new government, and a package of Saudi aid, probably in exchange for reduced Iranian influence in Lebanon.
However, the political will in favour of reconciliation in the region versus the tendency towards intransigence is generally contingent on the ways in which the winds are blowing internationally. The same thing applies to presidential elections in Lebanon, which often attract considerable attention in Western capitals, especially Washington and Paris.
As a result, the electoral process in Lebanon is rarely a domestic or even a regional affair alone, and the international supervision of elections is often the make-all or break-all of the process.
Amir-Abdollahian’s visit to Beirut may be a preliminary step towards a regional normalisation process that would have a positive impact on the Lebanese domestic situation. On the other hand, if it meets with no response and nothing further comes out of it, then his visit will merely be another diplomatic step that changes nothing in crisis-plagued Lebanon.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.