Hezbollah flexes its muscles in Lebanon and provides free Iranian fuel

Hezbollah flexes its muscles in Lebanon and provides free Iranian fuel

Lebanon's new government got off to an inauspicious start this week. As parliamentarians gathered to approve the cabinet lineup, the electricity went out — a common occurrence these days — and the chamber was plunged into darkness.

To the rescue came Hezbollah, the militant Shiite movement designated by the United States as a terrorist organization that is also a political party here. Lawmaker Ibrahim Musawi swiftly procured two generators from the organization’s offices.

“You are welcome,” he said in a video, shared on Instagram, showing off the two generators in a parking lot outside, with promises that they would remain for any future parliamentary power cuts.

Eventually, the electricity came back on and the generators were no longer needed. But the episode provided a fresh opportunity for Hezbollah to remind the Lebanese who wields real power in their steadily collapsing country.

Hezbollah has also been flaunting its clout by arranging for deliveries of diesel fuel from Iran, its sponsor, to help alleviate chronic electricity shortages that have left Lebanese reliant on generators for up to 24 hours a day.

The amounts involved are meager compared to the vast needs — the first shipment last week brought 33,000 tons, a fraction of the country’s overall daily consumption. A second shipment expected to be an equivalent amount has now arrived in neighboring Syria, Hezbollah said on Friday.

“It’s a PR stunt more than anything. It can’t even be considered a Band-Aid solution,” said Bachar el-Halabi, an energy analyst with the consultancy ClipperData.

But Hezbollah has seized the opportunity to portray itself as a savior, making the fuel available free to hospitals, charitable institutions, emergency services, municipalities and other institutions that have had services crippled by the lack of electricity.

At the same time, it has sought to dispel its image as a sectarian organization concerned only with benefiting its own Shiite constituency. Among the recipients of free fuel was the Dar al-Riaya al-Marouni nursing home in the predominantly Christian Beirut neighborhood of Ain Remmaneh, which cares for 85 elderly Christians and relies on charity to survive.

“Our situation was terrible. We had no diesel and no electricity at all,” said Malik Maroun, the nursing home’s manager. After a priest called a dedicated number for those seeking supplies, Hezbollah delivered 2,500 liters of fuel, enough to provide electricity for two weeks.

“We will take any donation from anyone as long as it is unconditional,” he added.

They weren’t alone. In a video shared on social media, a grateful nun lavished thanks on Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah for the “generous” supply of fuel to her orphanage. “I ask God to give him strength and health,” she said.

With the deliveries, Hezbollah has demonstrated its ability to outmaneuver the Lebanese state, as well as the United States and its sanctions regime against Iran and Hezbollah, said Halabi, the energy analyst. Lebanon’s economic and financial collapse has left the government unable to provide more than a few hours of electricity a day, and fuel to run the generators the entire country relies on is scarce.

Hezbollah is an integral part of the Lebanese state, with ministers in the cabinet and representatives in the parliament. It supported the formation of the long-awaited new government headed by the billionaire Najib Mikati and served as kingmaker in the negotiations among the country’s other squabbling factions, which dragged on for over a year.

Yet the delivery of the fuel seemed designed to undermine the authority of the new government even before it had won formal approval, underscoring the weakness of the state and its institutions. Alongside its support for the government, Hezbollah operates what amounts to a parallel state, with its own militia, social service networks and illegal trading routes, which it deployed to supply the fuel.

The delivery was calibrated to ensure no drop came into contact with government entities or employees, thereby averting U.S. sanctions against Lebanon that might be triggered if the government were involved in the import of Iranian oil. The fuel was shipped by an Iranian tanker to the Syrian port of Baniyas, which is already under U.S. sanctions, then loaded onto trucks belonging to a Hezbollah-owned company, al-Amana, which is also under sanctions. It was then driven across smuggling routes into Lebanon, avoiding formal customs posts.

“We have preserved our pride and dignity, rejected humiliation, defended our sovereignty and, most importantly, safeguarded Lebanon’s national decision,” Hezbollah lawmaker Mohammad Raad said in comments carried earlier this week by the state news agency.

Had the United States invoked the sanctions, it would have reinforced Hezbollah’s narrative that America is responsible for blocking Lebanon’s access to fuel, Halabi noted.

“This is the victory Hezbollah was able to claim. It was a very smart move, and they put America and its allies in a bind,” he said. “I don’t see that the Americans were really interested in retaliating.”

The United States is backing a potentially more effective plan to deliver Egyptian gas and electricity imports via Jordan and Syria directly to the state-owned electricity company, which would reduce the country’s reliance on diesel fuel for generators. But that could take months to implement, officials say.

The supplies of diesel oil have done nothing to alleviate the shortages of gasoline that have further paralyzed the bankrupt economy, causing huge lines at gas stations. Hezbollah has promised that it will also soon provide gasoline from Iran.

In an interview with CNN, Mikati said the Hezbollah fuel deliveries made him “sad” because of the challenge they represented to Lebanese sovereignty. But he offered no immediate solution.

By Nader Durgham, Suzan Haidamous and Liz Sly

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