For Iran, Helping Lebanon May Not Be Worth the Cost

4 MINS READMar 2, 2016 | 03:04 GMT
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Less than a week after Saudi Arabia reduced its aid for Lebanon, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman has now said that Iran will consider sending arms to Lebanon. According to one report by a pro-Hezbollah outlet, Iran could offer as much as $10 billion to be used for a variety of purposes. But the Saudis bailed on Lebanon in large part because their money was not buying the political results they had hoped it would, and the same concerns could prevent Iran's proposed aid from ever materializing. 

That Iran's statement comes immediately after Saudi Arabia withdrew $4 billion in aid it had promised Lebanon in 2014 is no coincidence. Lebanon has long been a political battleground between Sunni and Shiite powers. The country's mix of Shiites, Sunnis and Christians lends itself to fragmentation, while its location between so many larger powers makes it a point of interest for those looking to achieve their own objectives in the region with the help of Lebanese groups such as Hezbollah.

Recognizing that its aid was not generating the political returns it desired, Saudi Arabia is shifting gears and focusing on other ways to contain the influence of Hezbollah (and by extension, Iran), such as supporting a Sunni force in Syria against the Lebanese militant group. Iran, meanwhile, wants to demonstrate that it can help Lebanon just as the Saudis are shunning it.

Tehran has offered military aid to Lebanon in the past, but officially the Lebanese government has always refused because of the nuclear-related international sanctions against Iran. (Unofficially, Iran has sent military aid through Lebanese militant groups for years.) But now that Iran has reached its nuclear deal, Lebanon is interested in revisiting the idea of Iranian aid. On Feb. 20, immediately after Saudi Arabia announced it would cancel its aid to the Lebanese military and security forces, Lebanese Defense Minister Samir Moqbel announced that Beirut would accept if Tehran offered again to supply arms and military equipment. And there are indications that Iranian support could be broader. According to Hezbollah media outlet al-Akhbar, Iran could send as much as $10 billion to Lebanon for not just military and security support but also water and electricity infrastructure and waste management programs. The Lebanese government's failure to pick up and dispose of garbage set off significant protests in August 2015, and waste management is a lingering issue, so the prospect of Iranian aid in this area is particularly attractive.  

Just as Saudi Arabia hoped its aid to Lebanon would bolster Sunni power in the government and undermine Hezbollah, Iran, too, will expect political results from any aid it sends. Iran would like to increase support for Hezbollah in Lebanon by demonstrating that the group can provide for the Lebanese people in ways that the country's Sunni leaders have failed to do.

Iran now faces two major questions. The first is whether Iran could gain political leverage through aid where Saudi Arabia failed. After all, even though Lebanon's Sunni leaders were pushing the country toward Saudi Arabia, they were not able to deliver Lebanon's full support, as evidenced by the country's failure to condemn the attacks on the Saudi Embassy in Iran. To the contrary, the political crisis in Lebanon has persisted in large part because of the Shiite and Sunni communities' inability to compromise on regional issues and because of the competing interests of their foreign backers.

The second question is whether the financial and political constraints on Iran will allow Tehran to actually follow through on its proposed aid to Lebanon. Though Iran will have increased access to capital now that the nuclear deal has been implemented, it is unclear whether it would actually spend billions of dollars on aid that is not guaranteed to produce political results. Moreover, it is possible that the controversy that would accompany Iranian aid would actually shift the balance of power in Lebanon, exacerbating the country's political crisis and having an unpredictable impact on Iranian interests in Syria.

It is politically expedient for Iran to promise support to Lebanon and contrast Riyadh's abandonment of Beirut with its own dedication. However, it is unlikely that Iran will follow through with the $10 billion in aid that has been reported. What is certain is that both Iran and Saudi Arabia will continue to view Lebanon as a pawn in their struggle for influence in the Middle East.

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