Alwaght – After several months of political limbo, Lebanon finally formed its government on January 30. The Arab media called the new cabinet a victory for Iran. However, two weeks after the government formation it seems that the country is witnessing a new round of race for further influence by the regional powers.
Earlier this week, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited the Lebanese capital Beirut and met most of the country’s leaders. Zarif discussed the expansion of business relations with Lebanon and suggested that the trade be done by the two countries’ national currencies, an offer received welcome of Lebanon’s authorities.
On the other side, senior Saudi government advisor Nadhir al-Ula visited Lebanon for talks with officials there. He reportedly offered an aid package from Riyadh to Beirut. Saudi Arabia is a traditional sway holder in the small Mediterranean country. But Iran, a supporter of the resistant movement Hezbollah in Lebanon, has been increasingly gaining the Lebanese people’s attention as Tehran stood behind Beirut in hard times.
Hezbollah’s strong position in the new cabinet and the visionary political thinking of the Christian groups in the country will elevate the Tehran-Beirut relationship to new heights. The Saudi diplomat is planned to meet only three Lebanese officials, the President Michael Auon, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and the Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. But the Iranian FM in addition to the three met also with other Lebanese community’s factions, like Hezbollah Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
At a donation conference held in Paris last April, Saudi Arabia and a couple of other countries and international organizations suggested that the international community aids the Lebanese recession-hit economy with $11 billion in investment in the nation’s infrastructural projects. Such an offer is not new by the Saudis. Earlier, they had made such offers to Beirut but when the last May election gave Hezbollah new clout and influence in the politics, the Arab kingdom withdrew the offers or declined to realize them. Glaringly apparent, the new Saudi financial help offers are politically conditional, like they want Hezbollah’s power curbed, an anti-Syrian policy be adopted, and the US-sponsored “deal of the century” be backed seriously by the Lebanese leaders.
One issue of discussion between Zarif and the Lebanese officials was the Syrian refugees. Over the 8 years of the Syrian conflict, more than 1 million Syrians fled to Lebanon. As the war against the terrorist groups winds down, conditions are being prepared for the return of the displaced citizens. But only a small number have so far returned home despite the efforts made by Auon and Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister, who seek to alleviate the pressures on their crisis-hit economy.
For the past few years, mixed political and financial problems have hit the national Lebanese economy, curtailing the nation’s power to host a huge number of refugees from Syria crossing the border into the country. The political and social structures as well as the sectarian distribution of power considered, the existence of over 1 million Sunni Syrians can negatively impact the non-Sunni communities’ political and social potentials and disturb the power distribution mechanism in the long run. Lebanese officials hope that Iran’s sway in Syria will help them see the Syrians return to their home country as soon as possible.
Earlier, Sayyed Nasrallah said that Lebanon could enhance its army’s defense capabilities by buying air defense and other systems from Iran. As Zarif flew to Beirut for the visit, some Arab media speculated that he offered a delivery of air defense systems to the Lebanese army. But because the US is a provider of weapons to the Lebanese military, it is highly unlikely that the Lebanese leaders reach an agreement with Tehran for procurement of Iranian arms.
On the other side, Bassil gave the thumbs down to US invitation to anti-Iranian summit in Warsaw, Poland, because of Israeli regime prime minister’s participation. But some 11 regional countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two being staunch anti-Iranian forces in the region, have said yes to the invitation. The constructive Iranian contacts with such a strategic country as Lebanon and Beirut’s turning down of the US invitation for the conference, the analysts suggest, carry every sign that Iran’s regional foes are being isolated.
It appears that Saudi regime’s rivalry with Iran over regional influence has upgraded to a new stage. Lebanon’s broadcaster MTV has reported, citing anonymous diplomatic sources, the Saudi diplomat’s trip was not a response to Zarif visit and that al-Ula’s travel was scheduled immediately after Lebanon announced its new government and was meant to pass a congratulation message from the Saudi leadership to the Lebanese people and government. But one should not close eyes to the Saudi aims to sign lucrative Syria reconstruction contracts using Lebanese channel as the Arab monarchy looks at Lebanon as a gate to access Syria anew after the years of devastating war.