U.S., Iran and inertia, an axis to dampen France’s Lebanese dreams

FILE PHOTO: A soldier stands at the devastated site of the explosion at the port of Beirut, Lebanon August 6, 2020. Thibault Camus/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

(Reuters) – During a visit to Paris last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear that Washington was unhappy with France’s strategy to help resolve the economic and political crisis in Lebanon.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been spearheading international efforts to rescue the former French protectorate from its deepest crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war. He has travelled twice to Lebanon since a huge explosion at Beirut port in August devastated the city.

Macron is trying to use Paris’ historical influence in the former French protectorate to persuade squabbling Lebanese politicians to adopt a roadmap and form a new government tasked with rooting out corruption, a prerequisite for international donors including the IMF to unlock billions of dollars in aid.

He had been due to return for a third visit on Dec. 22, but postponed the trip on Thursday after testing positive for coronavirus. An official involved in organising the visit said he may speak by phone to Lebanese President Michel Aoun but there were no other plans for now.

The 42-year-old leader has from the outset faced the inertia of Lebanon’s fractious political class, which has bickered and ignored international warnings of state bankruptcy, as well as resistance to his plans from Washington.

“The Lebanese political class is stuck in its own contradictions and is happy to play the clock,” said Nadim Khoury at the Arab Reform Initiative.

“(Prime Minister-designate) Saad al-Hariri is not able to form a government and internationally the U.S. will not facilitate French efforts to form a government.”

The U.S. objection to Macron’s plan is centred on Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed armed movement that wields enormous power in Lebanon and which Washington brands a terrorist group.

Hariri, a former prime minister, was given the task of forming a government after Mustapha Adib resigned in September. He is so far struggling to cobble together a cabinet to share power with all Lebanese parties, including Hezbollah.

Paris was not initially keen for Hariri to take up the role, having previously failed to implement reforms, three French officials said. But given the lack of progress in forming a credible government, Macron did not oppose the nomination.

France says Hezbollah’s elected arm has a legitimate political role.

The U.S. has already imposed sanctions on three leading politicians allied to Hezbollah. During a dinner in Paris last month with eight ambassadors, including from Europe, Pompeo made clear more measures would follow if Hezbollah were part of the government, according to two people with knowledge of his visit.

The stalemate has important ramifications for all sides.

Without U.S. backing, international organisations and donors will not give Lebanon the money it needs to claw itself out of a financial crisis which the World Bank says will likely see more than half the population engulfed in poverty by 2021.

Macron, having vowed amid the rubble in Beirut not to abandon the Lebanese people, is scrambling to show some foreign policy success in the region after walking empty-handed from high-profile initiatives on Libya and Iran in recent years.

For the outgoing U.S. administration, a tough stance on Hezbollah, which it deems a terrorist group, is key to demonstrating that its overall Middle East policy, including maximum pressure on Iran, has been effective.

Three diplomats said they did not expect President-elect Joe Biden to change policy quickly given the bi-partisan nature of the U.S. stance and other priorities for the new administration.

Biden has said he plans to scrap what he calls the “dangerous failure” of President Donald Trump’s maximum pressure policy on Iran, but people familiar with his thinking have said he will not shy away from using sanctions.

The differences with Washington exacerbate what was always going to be a difficult challenge for Macron.

When he had lunch with Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun and parliament speaker Nabih Berri on Sept. 1, his objective was to ensure Berri, head of the Shi’ite Muslim Amal Movement, committed to a deadline to form a new government.

Macron insisted on 10-15 days, according to a person with knowledge of the meeting. Berri, a stalwart of Lebanese politics who has in the past had a hand in picking key ministers, twice responded with “Insha’allah,” (God Willing), a polite way sometimes used in the Middle East to react to something you don’t want to do. Macron put out his palm to say no and again emphasize his demands.

Berri’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Macron’s office said: “The president continues his calls with the various political players in Lebanon as he had previously committed to.”

A week later, although Macron said he had got all factions to back his plan, the United States blacklisted two former ministers, including one from Amal, for their ties to Hezbollah.

“You’re right to say the sanctions policy of the American administration, done without consultation or coordination with us, has strained the game,” Macron said not long afterwards, when asked about the U.S. not being warm to his efforts.

Since then Gebran Bassil, son-in-law of Aoun, who heads the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s largest Christian party, has been sanctioned over his ties to Hezbollah. U.S., European and regional diplomats say new sanctions are imminent.

Hezbollah has become the overarching power in Lebanon, with elected members of parliament and positions in government. While its support from Iran has been hit by U.S. sanctions, the group remains a pillar of Tehran’s regional influence.

French officials say Washington’s punitive measures have done nothing to change the situation on the ground. A French presidential official told reporters on Dec. 2 “they did not block anything … but haven’t unlocked anything either.”

Speaking at an online conference of the CSIS think-tank, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea said that while avoiding state failure in Lebanon was “first and foremost”, Washington viewed Hezbollah as being “wholly in service to their Iranian masters” and said U.S. measures were having an effect.

Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the Middle East, regards Iran as its biggest threat and Hezbollah as the main danger on its borders.

Iranian officials said that Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was in contact with Tehran on how to handle Macron’s initiative, but they would not allow Hezbollah to be weakened.

Macron has meanwhile been left admonishing Lebanon’s politicians for betraying their commitments.

“As of today, these commitments have not been kept,” he said on Dec. 2. “So far, there is nothing to show that they were more than words. I regret that.”