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Lebanon has begun a dangerous flirtation with Iran. The question is: Where will it end?
Today marks a historic visit to Lebanon by the Iranian foreign minister who will magnanimously be offering to the newly-formed Lebanese government advanced air defense systems.
This is a direct challenge to the U.S., which - in an effort to curb Hezbollah's influence in Lebanon -- has been arming and training the Lebanese army to the tune of $1.7 billion since 2007 (including this year's pledge of $100 million).
The Iranian visit is a trial balloon apparently being raised not only by Iran but by the Lebanese government itself and their ever-increasing warlord, Hezbollah, the world's most powerful terrorist organization and a now a major player in the Lebanese government.
A little background:
Lebanon recently formed a new government. This followed close to eight months of haggling since the May 9, 2018 elections -- elections which showed (according to the Israeli defense minister at the time) that Iran's client, Hezbollah, had effectively taken control of the state.
According to Clarion Project's Shillman Fellow and Arab Affairs Analyst Ran Meir,
"We can assume at this point that Iran, ever eager to take advantage of their new-found influence, suggested to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to begin pressuring the Lebanese government to accept Iranian air defense systems.
"Not only would this make Lebanon beholden to Iran, but it would have the practical advantage of Iran being able to gain a stronger foothold in Lebanon, stop Israeli attacks on Iranian military installations in Syria and give Hezbollah installation in the south more fortification.
"Nasrallah, eager to comply with his Iranian benefactors, then floated the next trial balloon, saying publicly that he was personally willing to mediate between the Lebanese government and Iran regarding the defense systems.
"While the West scrambled to digest the news, Iran had already planned its next move, announcing an official visit by the Iranian foreign minister to Lebanon to talk about the proposal.
"It is interesting that the Americans were the last to visit Lebanon before the government was formed, sending the assistant secretary of the treasury to lobby against Hezbollah gaining the powerful ministry of health (a mission that they failed). Iran, on the other hand, is the first to visit Lebanon since the government was formed, capitalizing on Hezbollah's new-found power with 18 out of 30 ministries being held by Hezbollah and its allies."
That visit takes place today, February 10. A spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry said Iranian FM Mohammed Zarif will be meeting not only with representatives from the new Lebanese government, but (not to miss the opportunity) also with the secretary general of the Islamic Jihad movement (a terrorist organization) as well as representatives of the Palestinian parties in Lebanon.
The Iranian ambassador to Lebanon stated that his country is ready to "support" the Lebanese army in the same way as it supports the "resistance" (read: Hezbollah).
With Iran under intense international sanctions, some analysts contend that Lebanon cannot possibly accept the offer. The price they would pay diplomatically and financially would assure not only the ruin of the country but its complete surrender to Hezbollah (and Iran).
If so, the question remains: Why are they allowing Iran to come in the first place with their offer? Military attaches stationed in various Western embassies in Beirut asking the same question report being stonewalled by the Lebanese government.
Moreover, a source inside the defense ministry said Beirut will take its time responding to Iran's proposal. For his part, the Lebanese minister of defense, who just returned from a trip to Washington, stated, "I support anyone who helps in arming the military if it is needed."
A new development in Washington might provide the key to Lebanon's caginess. One of the main reasons Washington, beginning with George W. Bush's administration, was willing to pour big money into Lebanon was to help the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) disarm the militias terrorizing the country (as per the requirement of UN Security Council Resolution 1701).
"In the last 11 years, the LAF has made zero progress in disarming the most important of those militias, Hezbollah," writes analyst Eli Lake in Bloomberg.
At the same time as Lebanon went the polls last May, Senator Ted Cruz attached an amendment to the Senate defense authorization bill which required the Pentagon and the State Department to assess the progress of the LAF in this regard.
For the past 11 years, American money came with virtually no strings attached or accountability.
Cruz had actually wanted to nix aid to the LAF altogether, a position that Pentagon and military sources oppose, since it would open up the country to be taken over by Iranian and Russian influence and destroy American access to a vital Mediterranean port.
Complicating the matter is the fact that not only has the LAF been a partner with America in routing ISIS in Syria, but Hezbollah and Iran were also engaged in the same job (effectively making them American partners).
The announcement of America's pullout of its troops in Syria leaves a vacuum that Iran is only too happy filling -- which makes sense since, when Iran was moving into Syria, Washington did nothing to stop them. (If anything, America has outsourced this job to Israel.)
Perhaps this lack of will by America to stop Iran in Syria that has been one of the triggers for Iran to insinuate itself into Lebanon in a more bold way.
As one analyst asked, "If the U.S. government didn't or couldn't push back against Iran [in Syria] effectively itself, why should it expect weak Lebanese politicians to fare any better?"
The Wall Street Journal reports that, along with its allies and current coalition partners, Hezbollah's coalition now holds 71 seats out of 128 in the Lebanese parliament, up from 57 in 2009.
That's a lot of influence for Iran in Lebanon. So, is this visit and proposal by the Iranian FM a trial balloon or it is a done deal with no choice for Lebanese politicians wanting to hold on to their power (and their lives)?
And, has America been played (once again) by Iran?