By Radwan Mortada – Aug 24, 2021
As Lebanon’s economic crisis deepens amidst an effective US embargo, Hezbollah begins to supply the Lebanese population.
The chokehold on Lebanon has grown even tighter, thanks to the embargo imposed against it by the United States and its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf. This comes at the lowest point of Lebanon’s two-year-old economic crisis, a catastrophe the World Bank calls the worst the world has seen since 1850. The country’s sudden-but-deliberate fuel shortage, vital to essential daily activity and life-saving medical services, has accelerated this alarm. Today, bread is in shortage and hospitals are sending out distress calls, civilians are camping in front of petrol stations, and water has all but disappeared from supermarket shelves.
With general government inaction and the failure of Lebanon’s political parties to form a new government, Hezbollah has forged ahead with its plan to import fuel from Iran. A few weeks ago, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah had paved the way by saying that if the government does nothing to resolve the fuel crisis, “Hezbollah will make arrangements with Iran, buy gasoline and diesel vessels, bring them to Beirut Port, and let the government [if it can] prohibit their delivery to the Lebanese people.” In a later speech, he added: “The brothers in Hezbollah are currently in Iran to complete the gasoline and diesel deal, and we will deliver them soon, either by land or by sea.”
Last week, Nasrallah announced the news of imminent oil imports from Iran, warning the world not to interfere with the fuel tanker that set sail from the Iranian coast towards Lebanon.
A Lebanese expert in oil and gas governance in the MENA region, Laury Haytayan, estimates that it will take 15 days for the Iranian gasoline tanker departing from the southern Iranian port of Bandar Abbas to reach Lebanon. Haytayan says the ship will pass the Strait of Hormuz, then Bab al-Mandab, and sail through the Red Sea into the Suez Canal before heading to Lebanon. Likewise, a maritime expert speaking on condition of anonymity suggested another route the Iranian oil tanker could take: the Cape Route near South Africa, northwards and through the Strait of Gibraltar, crossing Cypriot and Greek shores to reach the Mediterranean coast. This route, he noted, would take the ship 45 days to arrive.
Lebanon’s Minister of Energy Raymond Ghajar says that he has not received a request to allow Iranian oil into the country, and notes that Nasrallah “chose his words correctly when he said that the ship sailed from Iran to the Mediterranean Sea, and not Lebanese territorial waters,” which opens the possibility that the ship will not dock in Lebanese ports. It is altogether possible, therefore, that the ship will head towards the Syrian coast to unload at the Baniyas refinery, and then be transported by land to Lebanon.
As soon as Nasrallah first announced his offer to provide fuel for Lebanon, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Lebanese Forces Party Executive Chairman Samir Geagea – both of whom are affiliated with Saudi Arabia – denounced the move, accusing the Hezbollah leader of pushing Lebanon into a war between two axes. Previously, neither of them had said a word about the suffering of Lebanese patients in hospitals or their humiliatingly long waits at gas stations. Moreover, neither took the initiative to appeal to their Saudi patrons to assist Lebanon. If anything, both were painfully aware that Saudi Arabia was covertly obstructing the formation of a Lebanese government.
An Iraqi source, who took part in the Iran–Saudi negotiations organized by Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, revealed to The Cradle that when the Iranian delegate mentioned the issue of Lebanon during the negotiations, the Saudi delegate quickly interrupted: “Lebanon is not a priority for us. We don’t want to discuss Lebanon now.”
Hezbollah, however, has been clear in its message that the aim of importing Iranian oil is not to cause a clash, but simply to provide essential fuel for the Lebanese population. Before Nasrallah announced the first shipment, Hezbollah staff gathered information from hospitals and bakeries to work out their monthly fuel requirements. Zahrani power plant manager Ziad al-Zain tells The Cradle that Lebanon needs about 10 million liters of diesel a day for its electricity needs, and that the Zahrani plant accounts for 15 percent of gasoline consumption in the entire country.
Sources informed of Hezbollah’s internal discussions during the past few weeks reveal that the deliberations focused on whether to import the oil by sea or by land, and to investigate both options and consequences.
According to the sources, a specialized committee, supervised directly by Nasrallah, was set up to conduct research and identify a solution for the fuel crisis. Three recommendations were provided.
Initially, the committee proposed that the work should be carried out by the Lebanese government, with the government formulating the oil contracts. Hezbollah went so far as to negotiate the use of the Lebanese lira to pay for the imported oil, but the government did not respond to this proposal. The second recommendation was to pressure Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh to continue opening credit lines for fuel subsidies, especially as the financial crisis was just beginning to unfold.
The third recommendation was to work within the existing margins of the Ministry of Energy — for example, through the communications that led Lebanon’s General Security Director Abbas Ibrahim to contact Iraq for oil, before those talks also fizzled over internal legislative obstacles. Despite Iraq’s responsiveness to quickly provide Lebanon with fuel, it is the Lebanese side that has delayed the process. The hurdle, it seems, was in submitting the Iraq oil proposal to parliament’s Committee of Legislation and Consultation for consideration, where it quickly disappeared into a black hole.
Amin Nasser, director of the Iraqi Media Network in Lebanon and the Levant, who accompanied the Lebanese delegation to Iraq alongside Abbas Ibrahim and Energy Minister Ghajar, says the delays have been entirely caused by Lebanese internal political obstruction. Nasser, however, also disclosed that there was a decision to override the obstructions and issue a tender, and suggests that Iraqi oil will arrive in Lebanon on 3 September, although this has yet to be confirmed.
Another informed Iraqi source told The Cradle: “There were no obstacles on the Iraqi side, as Baghdad’s offer was made without conditions. However, there was one last-minute condition set by Iraq’s Minister of Finance, Dr. Abdul-Amir Allawi, head of the Iraqi negotiating team, related to the need to place tender announcements for companies interested in refining Iraqi oil through an official online platform linked to the Lebanese Ministry of Energy. And if a company is chosen, we must be informed of the name, address and details of this company, which will deal directly with the Iraq’s Oil Marketing Company, SOMO.”
The Iraqi source points out that subsequently, “no Lebanese or foreign companies were publicly announced through any official website or online platform linked to the Ministry of Energy, and no mechanisms were put in place to choose companies, nor tenders, nor who won them. The only thing mentioned was that there were five unidentified competing companies, which Iraq has no knowledge of, and were not placed on the platform.”
As for the Iraqi fuel arriving within the first few days of September, that flimsy expectation likely relates to Lebanese Minister Ghajar informing Iraq that he has completed administrative and technical procedures, including overland shipping, and that boat shipments were scheduled to sail in the next two days.
“So far, we have received no direct answers from the Lebanese side,” The Cradle’s Baghdad source says, adding that the Iraqi side remains silent so as not to exacerbate the Lebanese problem. “Iraq says we have offered oil unconditionally, and Lebanon must take action to clear its goods. In the case that it cannot do so, then we can help by shipping one million tons at the expense of the Iraqi government,” the source explains.
It was this kind of dead-end, accountability-lacking negotiations that prompted Hezbollah to knock on Iran’s door for fuel. According to sources close to the Lebanese resistance group, Hezbollah’s plan is to buy fuel from Iran with payment facilities and under contracts signed between the two parties. These sources say the first shipment of diesel oil will be a gift from the Iranian people to the Lebanese people. However, Iranian news reports have said that a group of Shia businessmen assumed the cost for the first oil tanker.
Within hours of Nasrallah’s bold 19 August speech, Lebanese President Michel Aoun received a phone call from Washington’s Beirut Ambassador Dorothy Shea, informing him of the US administration’s decision to help Lebanon receive Egyptian gas and electricity from Jordan via Syria. This Egyptian-Jordanian-Syrian proposal is not new. IMF Executive Director Mahmoud Mohieldin, in an earlier visit to Lebanon, assured officials that Jordan is able to obtain US approval to exempt Egyptian gas from the Caesar Act (a piece of US domestic legislation crafted to punish any party that does business with or through Syria), allowing its transfer through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon without being subject to US sanctions.
Hezbollah’s first reaction to the US ambassador’s “offer” was a public lashing by Hezbollah MP Hassan Fadlallah: “Instead of being ashamed of herself, and hiding the shame of her administration from [events] in Kabul airport to the siege of Beirut, the US ambassador is trying to justify American aggression against Lebanon, exposing, by her usual shamelessness, the responsibility her administration bears in the suffering of the Lebanese people when she admitted to her ability to bring funding from the World Bank to transfer electricity from Jordan via Syria, which is besieged by the American-imposed Caesar Act.”
Fadlallah also said that “preventing access to electricity via Syria is an American decision, which was only revised because of the fuel ship arriving from the Islamic Republic. This also means that when the United States decides to lift its hand from its preventative decisions, the pain of the Lebanese people could [easily] be alleviated.” He added that “the timing of the US ambassador’s announcement is an explicit condemnation of its own administration, which has been prohibiting any foreign assistance to the Lebanese people, including transferring their own money from Syrian banks, and providing Lebanon with life-saving products, a matter that only requires it to signal its approval. All the while, it has been protecting its corrupt allies and threatening to impose sanctions against those who compromise [American] influence within state institutions.”
Nasrallah announced in his 22 August speech that the fleet of Iranian fuel ships has effectively begun, and that a second Iranian ship will set sail toward Lebanon in a matter of days. The Hezbollah chief spoke about Lebanese businessmen who would pay for the fuel, revealing that they were ready for this sacrifice, even if they were placed on the US sanctions list. The aim behind this action, Nasrallah said, is to alleviate the suffering of the people, and that the fuel will be for all Lebanese and all residents of Lebanon. He did, however, prioritize hospitals, pharmaceutical factories, and bakeries.
As for US Ambassador Dorothy Shea and her “promises,” this was nothing more than “selling illusions” to the Lebanese people, Nasrallah parried. Her words, he said, “confirm that her country is responsible for preventing electricity and fuel from [entering] Lebanon, and that the Americans and Saudis have sought to ignite a civil war in Lebanon over the past years, but had clearly failed to do so.”
Sayyed Nasrallah also said that importing gas from Egypt and electricity from Jordan requires negotiations with Syria, something that the Lebanese state could have formally requested itself from the Syrian state had it not been under an economic embargo imposed on it by the US.
Radwan Murtada is a Beirut-based journalist who has written for Al Akhbar since 2007 and has contributed to many foreign media outlets on political, criminal, social and judiciary affairs in Lebanon and the wider region. Radwan is a specialist on Islamic jihadist groups, and honed his connections and craft during the Syrian conflict, interviewing both Al Qaeda and ISIS leaders for various outlets.
Featured image: The Iranian fuel tanker set to shortly deliver oil to Lebanon will break the US-imposed embargo on the country. Photo source: The Cradle