Hezbollah Brings Iranian Fuel to Lebanon as Shortages Deepen Crisis
A convoy of trucks carrying Iranian fuel rolled into Lebanon from Syria on Thursday, a delivery arranged by Tehran-allied Hezbollah to help alleviate a domestic energy crisis and contain growing public anger against the ruling elite over the country’s economic collapse.
The powerful militant and political group brought the fuel in via Syria in a likely effort to avoid embroiling Lebanon in U.S. sanctions targeting Iranian oil exports.
Hezbollah will distribute free of charge a month’s supply of fuel to public hospitals, orphanages, the Red Cross and a host of other institutions and care providers, according to the group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah.
Hezbollah’s initiative, which bypassed the newly formed Lebanese government, comes as the country is undergoing an economic crisis the World Bank said is possibly one of the three worst the world has witnessed in the past 150 years. Between 2018 and 2020, the economy shrank by around 40%, according to the World Bank.
The crisis has thrust millions of people into poverty and caused shortages of food and medicine. Large parts of the country suffer daily hourslong power outages.
The value of the Lebanese pound against the dollar has collapsed by more than 90% since 2019. As a result, the price of imports, including fuel, has skyrocketed. Long winding lines of cars now snake through the country’s cities and mountains as people wait their turn for gasoline. Fuel shortages have forced some essential services and businesses to shut down.
The stakes are high for the Shiite-majority Hezbollah, which controls only two cabinet seats but has a hegemonic position in Lebanon’s deeply divided political system. Many Lebanese blame the country’s entire ruling class for the multiple overlapping crises.
Clashes between Hezbollah and militants north of the capital, Beirut, earlier this year and a lavish wedding organized by one of its officials are a far cry from the image the group has been cultivating for decades: that of a benevolent resistance force above the petty corruption of Lebanon’s political elite.
“There is an awareness within Lebanese society that Hezbollah, like other political players, are involved not just in corruption but the failure of the system,” said Mona Alami, a researcher and consultant.
Hezbollah is now using the provision of services, including handouts of cash and food, to shield itself from public anger over the crises, analysts said. While the fuel delivery on Thursday was relatively small given the shortages, it allows Hezbollah to portray itself positively in front of the people. The country is gearing up for parliamentary elections next year.
Mr. Nasrallah first announced the plan to import Iranian fuel in August, also raising the diplomatic stakes of the fuel crisis. Hours after Mr. Nasrallah spoke, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea said she was working to find solutions to the fuel shortage through talking to the governments of Egypt and Jordan. The American effort to address the fuel problem had been under way for weeks, Ms. Shea said.
“Some people bet that the U.S. would object to us importing oil from Iran, but [instead] this led to the Americans entering the competition,” said Mr. Nasrallah during a speech on Monday.
Ministers from Egypt, Jordan and Syria said last week that they had agreed on a plan to ship Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon after maintenance was done on a network of pipelines needed to transport the fuel.
An Iranian tanker, Faxon, carrying 33,000 metric tons Iranian fuel arrived in the Syrian port of Baniyas earlier this week, according to TankerTrackers.com, a vessel-monitoring company. The ship’s full load would need 792 truckloads to transfer it over land from Syria to Lebanon, TankerTrackers.com said.
Had the ship docked in Lebanon, Lebanese officials and institutions would have risked being subject to U.S. sanctions themselves. The Lebanese government or U.S. officials didn’t immediately comment on the Iranian fuel delivery.
“We don’t like to embarrass anyone,” Mr. Nasrallah said during Monday’s speech, referring to the decision to have the ship dock in Syria, rather than in Lebanon.
Blasting party anthems and brandishing Hezbollah’s yellow flags, supporters of the group lined the roads to welcome the convoy of tanker trucks into Lebanon. In other parts of Lebanon supporters cheered their arrival by firing machine guns and RPGs into the air, according to social-media footage reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Many other Lebanese reacted with a shrug. “We are sitting in the dark and have no refrigeration,” said Rizkallah Arja, a municipal official in the Bekaa Valley, not far from the border with Syria.
Many Lebanese regard Hezbollah as the driving force behind Lebanon’s sectarian system of government, which activists blame for the implosion of the economy and the 2020 port explosion that killed more than 200 people and cut a path of destruction through Beirut.
Hezbollah receives part of its funding from Iran and maintains various revenue streams derived from the work of its operatives abroad.
By Nazih Osseiran and Jared Malsin