US, Iran and inertia, an axis to dampen France's Lebanese dreams

US, Iran and inertia, an axis to dampen France’s Lebanese dreams


Paris: At a private dinner in Paris last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made it clear that Washington was dissatisfied with France’s inclusion of Iran-backed Hezbollah in its strategy to resolve Lebanon’s economic and political crisis.

French President Macron has been taking the lead internationally to save the worst crisis since the civil war from 1975 to 1990. He has traveled to Lebanon twice since the huge explosion in Beirut port in August.

Macron tried to use Paris’ historical influence to persuade troubled Lebanese politicians to adopt the road map and form a new government to eradicate corruption. This is the release of billions by international donors, including the International Monetary Fund. A prerequisite for U.S. dollar 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. Army chief Francois Lecointre will replace the president to visit French troops on the ground and an official involved in organising the visit said Macron may speak by phone to Lebanese President Michel Aoun but there were no other plans for now.

The 42-year-old French 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.

After Mustapha Adib resigned in September, former prime minister Hariri was asked to form a government. So far, he is trying to piece together a cabinet to share power with all Lebanese political parties, including Hezbollah.

Three French officials said that Paris was not enthusiastic about Hariri’s appointment at the beginning because he had failed to implement reforms before. However, given the lack of progress in forming a credible government, Macron is not opposed to this nomination.

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

The United States has imposed sanctions on the three major politicians allied with Hezbollah. Two people familiar with the matter said that at a dinner held in Paris last month with eight ambassadors including Europe, Pompeo made it clear that if Hezbollah is part of the government, more measures will be taken.

In response to the statement that the United States is dissatisfied with France’s efforts, French presidential officials said that President Donald Trump and President Pompeo have repeatedly expressed their support for France’s initiative to establish a “government that can accept international assistance.”

The official also said that the United States participated in two donor conferences organized by France and emphasized its support.

After Pompeo met Macron, the US State Department said in a statement that the two discussed “major threats to global security, efforts to counter violent extremism, Iran’s destabilizing behavior, and Hezbollah’s harmful effects in Lebanon”.

The deadlock has important implications for all parties.

Without the support of the United States, international organizations and donors will not be able to provide Lebanon with the funds needed to escape the financial crisis. The World Bank said that by 2021, more than half of the population will fall into poverty.

Macron has vowed not to abandon the Lebanese people in the rubble of Beirut, but after returning empty-handed for high-profile initiatives on Libya and Iran in recent years, he is scrambling to demonstrate the success of foreign policy in the region.

For the outgoing U.S. administration, a tough stance on Hezbollah 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 Trump’s maximum pressure policy on Iran, but people familiar with his thinking have said he will not shy away from using sanctions.

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