As Lebanon struggles with acute fuel and electricity shortages, Iran-backed Hezbollah has arranged for oil tankers carrying Iranian diesel fuel to arrive from Syria Thursday — despite the threat of U.S. sanctions.
Lebanese news reports say Hezbollah has started bringing Iranian fuel into Lebanon, with about 20 tankers entering the northern Bekaa valley early Thursday after shipping it into neighboring Syria. Beirut’s An-Nahar newspaper said that “some residents in the town of Al-Shawagir fired shots in the air to celebrate the entry of the Iranian diesel.”
Hezbollah announced that as many as four such shipments of fuel from Iran are expected.
Observers say the Iranian fuel could help ease Lebanon's crippling energy shortages but critics argue that accepting it will expose the country to the risk of U.S. sanctions and comes with conditions attached.
Professor Habib Malik of the Lebanese American University told VOA that Hezbollah is choosing to disregard the threat of sanctions because the group’s leaders see it as a win-win situation for themselves.
“Ordinary people are literally dying because they are lacking all the basic necessities: electricity, gasoline, water even, Internet. To these people, any slight improvement will be seen as fantastic, so Hezbollah can cash in on that. Even if Lebanon is slapped with sanctions, for Hezbollah Lebanon will have been wrenched away from its Western and Arab ties — traditional orientations — taken to Syria, Iran and maybe even eventually China. They’ve been hellbent on hijacking Lebanon out of its traditional connections with the West and Arab world and into something completely new,” he said.
Observers say the arrival of the fuel could mark a new phase in Lebanon’s two-year financial crisis — one of the worst economic meltdowns in the country’s history.
With the central bank unable to release dollars to pay for fuel imports, many Lebanese suffer from chronic power cuts for as many as 22 hours a day.
Robert G. Rabil, a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University, writing in the magazine National Interest, urges Washington to “recognize the urgency of helping Lebanese now” and “work with civil society organizations to help change the sociopolitical conditions that allowed Hezbollah and other non-state actors to thrive in the first place.”
Habib Malik warns that Western help with energy is desperately needed right now. He said a U.S. plan for supplying electricity to Lebanon has been too slow.
"This is something that makes a lot of sense over months and maybe even years. But it doesn’t in any way address people’s immediate needs. The U.S. seems to be operating on a completely unrealistic time scale as far as Lebanon’s dire situation is concerned," he said.
Energy expert Diana Kaissy, an adviser to the independent Lebanese Oil and Gas Initiative in Beirut, told the Saudi Arab News that Hezbollah does not have a permit from the energy ministry and that — she said — suggests the diesel will be sold below market price. “This means that there will be a competitor in the fuel market and therefore, a new cartel will emerge owning illegal weapons and selling fuel based on incorrect foundations,” Kaissy said of Hezbollah’s action.
Iran and Hezbollah are already the target of U.S. sanctions. Former U.S. President Donald Trump reimposed sanctions on Iran in 2018 in a bid to cut its oil sales, while Hezbollah is designated by the U.S. and EU nations as a terrorist group.