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Hezbollah Is Trying to Be Lebanon’s Savior

As the country’s economic desperation grows, the Shiite sectarian group is promising to provide for anyone in need. 

By , a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut.
A souvenir shop owner displays glasses decorated with pictures of Hassan Nasrallah.
A souvenir shop owner displays glasses decorated with pictures of Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Lebanon’s Shiite militant group Hezbollah, in Beirut on May 12, 2016. PATRICK BAZ/AFP via Getty Images

Less than one month ago, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah announced that an Iranian oil tanker was on its way to aid fuel-starved Lebanon, daring the United States and Israel to stop it. On Thursday, 20 trucks, each carrying 50,000 liters of Iranian fuel, entered northeastern Lebanon through Syria. The trucks duly went to the Hezbollah-controlled region of Baalbek, where it was reportedly stored at gas stations run by the Al Amana fuel company—a company with ties to Hezbollah and which is under U.S. sanctions. Sources told Foreign Policy the fuel would next be transported with smaller vehicles to Al Amana pumps in Shiite neighborhoods across the country, including Hezbollah’s stronghold Dahiye, a Beirut suburb. 

In one sense, this was Hezbollah playing its typical role of rebel, blatantly defying U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil. But this also represented Nasrallah trying on a new role—that of savior for a country in deep economic crisis. Hezbollah remains a controversial actor in a political system crippled by sectarianism, but the group seems to have understood the current crisis is an opportunity. At a moment when power outages are shutting down businesses and threatening the lives of patients at hospitals, most Lebanese are willing to show some measure of allegiance to whomever can deliver a reprieve. 

“Ahlan wa Sahlan,” or “welcome,” chanted a Hezbollah supporter as he filmed the convoy of trucks passing through streets flanked with posters of Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and former general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qassem Suleimani. Men and women waved Hezbollah flags; some even fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns to celebrate the arrival of Iranian fuel, while others showered rice and flower petals on the trucks. On one stretch a group of women chanted that they wouldn’t bow down to anyone but death. On another passage trucks drove on laminated printouts of U.S. and Israeli flags pasted on the roads—a gimmick intended to arouse pride among the crowd and accuse Israel and the United States of plotting Lebanon’s domestic crises. Hezbollah is telling the Lebanese that fuel scarcity was caused by U.S. sanctions on Iran—not the inefficiency of Lebanon’s sectarian political system that it supports and is a part of—and that the group has dared to challenge the superpower for the sake of the people. 

Less than one month ago, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah announced that an Iranian oil tanker was on its way to aid fuel-starved Lebanon, daring the United States and Israel to stop it. On Thursday, 20 trucks, each carrying 50,000 liters of Iranian fuel, entered northeastern Lebanon through Syria. The trucks duly went to the Hezbollah-controlled region of Baalbek, where it was reportedly stored at gas stations run by the Al Amana fuel company—a company with ties to Hezbollah and which is under U.S. sanctions. Sources told Foreign Policy the fuel would next be transported with smaller vehicles to Al Amana pumps in Shiite neighborhoods across the country, including Hezbollah’s stronghold Dahiye, a Beirut suburb. 

In one sense, this was Hezbollah playing its typical role of rebel, blatantly defying U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil. But this also represented Nasrallah trying on a new role—that of savior for a country in deep economic crisis. Hezbollah remains a controversial actor in a political system crippled by sectarianism, but the group seems to have understood the current crisis is an opportunity. At a moment when power outages are shutting down businesses and threatening the lives of patients at hospitals, most Lebanese are willing to show some measure of allegiance to whomever can deliver a reprieve. 

“Ahlan wa Sahlan,” or “welcome,” chanted a Hezbollah supporter as he filmed the convoy of trucks passing through streets flanked with posters of Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and former general of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Qassem Suleimani. Men and women waved Hezbollah flags; some even fired rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns to celebrate the arrival of Iranian fuel, while others showered rice and flower petals on the trucks. On one stretch a group of women chanted that they wouldn’t bow down to anyone but death. On another passage trucks drove on laminated printouts of U.S. and Israeli flags pasted on the roads—a gimmick intended to arouse pride among the crowd and accuse Israel and the United States of plotting Lebanon’s domestic crises. Hezbollah is telling the Lebanese that fuel scarcity was caused by U.S. sanctions on Iran—not the inefficiency of Lebanon’s sectarian political system that it supports and is a part of—and that the group has dared to challenge the superpower for the sake of the people. 

Nasrallah said the fuel would be donated to government-run hospitals, orphanages, water stations, and the Lebanese Red Cross free of charge while sold to private hospitals, medicine factories, and bakeries at cheaper than the market rate. He promised not to discriminate based on religion or sect, and to supply the entire country. It isn’t yet clear exactly which institutions will benefit, but according to sources Hezbollah has already made a list of beneficiaries who will call Al Amana fuel pumps directly to organize procurement. 

Hezbollah’s traditional support base in the Shiite community believes their patron is generous and egalitarian. But even those of other sects or ideologies, who are often more circumspect of Hezbollah’s claims, did not seem to mind Iranian fuel. Nabil, a trainer at a gym in the Christian-dominated Gemmayzeh neighborhood of Beirut, spoke to Foreign Policy on the condition of partial anonymity. “We need fuel to survive. If Hezbollah asks, ‘Do you want Iranian fuel?’ I’ll say, ‘Yes, I do.’ You see, they—and by they I mean all political parties and not just Hezbollah—have made us so thirsty, so desperate, that we don’t care about politics, and changing the country for the better; we are struggling to survive,” he said. “We will take Iranian fuel, but we also know this means that Lebanon now belongs to Hezbollah and Iran. It is their era.” 

Laury Haytayan, a Lebanese energy expert, was among the first to poke holes in Hezbollah’s claims that it would distribute oil without discrimination. “One tanker carries just enough fuel to fulfill Lebanon’s needs for two days. A few of these tankers is far from what we need,” Haytayan said. “Moreover, that is even if Hezbollah will actually distribute it evenly and we know that it won’t. This is just for its support base.” 

Haytayan added that the purchase of Iranian fuel by Hezbollah and not the Lebanese state compromises the country’s sovereignty. “Hezbollah brought fuel from Iran on its own, regardless of what the state thinks. Then through Syria [the oil was brought] inside Lebanon, and not by crossing legal borders but border openings it controls,” Haytayan said. “All that indicates that we are headed towards a foreign policy that is 100 percent pro-Iran and that we have opened up to Syria and normalized ties with Assad. If this is the Lebanese government’s position, then we have not been told. It is clear that Lebanon’s foreign policy is being dictated by Hezbollah. 

“Since Hezbollah entered the parliament, it has weakened the institutions and never advocated passing of reforms that strengthen the state. Now they defied American sanctions and on their own brought Iranian fuel, in the middle of the day. There is no space for independent policy. Today, Hezbollah has taken over.”

Initially, Iran and Hezbollah critics had hoped that the United States and Israel might stop the Iranian tanker before it docked in the Syrian port. But that was perhaps seen as too risky. Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow at The Washington Institute and an expert in security and defense affairs of Iran and the Persian Gulf, said it was possible the United States did not stop the tanker because it wished to avoid confrontation with Hezbollah, but also because there is little legal basis for doing so. 

“I believe the U.S. policy on the subject at the moment is to avoid unnecessary tensions, considering the precarious situation the Lebanese people are in right now,” Nadimi said, and since Hezbollah is framing the latest shipments as help for the Lebanese people, “the U.S. is cautious.” Nadimi added that this incident will likely set a precedent and encourage Hezbollah to bring Iranian fuel directly to Lebanon next time. He described it as “a show of force by Hezbollah,” and a blow first to Israel and then to the United States.

The show of force by Hezbollah has so far gone unchallenged both by Israel and the United States. Israel’s intervention would have proven much more controversial since it has been at war with Lebanon, and any action by Israel might have united the Lebanese against Israel and behind Hezbollah. But the United States’ inaction is harder to explain. Former Lebanese Army Gen. Elias Farhat said the United States is unlikely to sanction Lebanon. 

Sami Nader, a Lebanese political analyst, suspected that Lebanon might become a casualty of negotiations to revive the U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal. “In my view, there is a let go—if not a green light, it’s an orange light, and it’s in line with the timid opening at the negotiation table in Vienna,” Nader said. “Maybe it’s a mutual concession. Let us say both parties mutually made a small gesture—Iran by allowing the [International Atomic Energy Agency] team to inspect and the U.S. by letting go of this fuel to Lebanon. It could be this.” Nader was referring to an agreement reached between the U.N. atomic watchdog and Iran on Sept. 12, under which the agency would be able to access surveillance cameras inside Iran’s atomic facilities.

The American response to Hezbollah’s purchase of Iranian fuel was to announce the facilitation of gas and electricity from Egypt and Jordan through Syria to Lebanon. But Hezbollah was faster and stole its thunder. Many in the country remain suspicious of the group’s end goals, but few will refuse the fuel it provides.

Anchal Vohra is a columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East based in Beirut. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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