France looks to restore influence in Lebanon, but Iran isn’t budging

October 2, 2020 by Israel Kasnett - JNS.org
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The multiple explosions in Beirut on Aug. 4 ravaged more than just part of Lebanon’s capital city.

French President Emmanuel Macron holding a press conference while visiting Beirut, Lebanon in early September. Source: Screenshot.

The government completely crumbled in the aftermath, and Hezbollah began to take heat from some quarters of the world. France’s President Emmanuel Macron flew to Beirut twice in the wake of the explosion to help leaders work towards forming a new government based on a roadmap he has presented, but Hezbollah—and its patron, Iran—are having none of it.

According to Efraim Karsh, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, Macron’s intervention in Lebanon is “not unlike his other Middle Eastern antics.”

He was referring to the French leader’s “brusque response” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to apply Israeli sovereignty to parts of Judea and Samaria, and Macron’s “lukewarm response” to the Abraham Accords signed recently by Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Karsh told JNS this is “a rather pathetic attempt” by Macron “to restore France’s (supposed) past imperial glory, a desire that is also evident in his competition with Germany for E.U. leadership” where he is, according to Karsh, “leading the fight against [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.”

Macron has been busy trying to push through his roadmap, which outlines the political and financial reforms he believes Lebanon needs to adopt to prevent the country from sinking even further into crisis and economic despair. So far, he has ruled out sanctions, but that threat looms over Lebanon’s political class.

According to Karsh, Macron’s efforts have had “very limited impact thus far,” and his involvement “will not help improve the Lebanese crisis one bit.”

“Indeed,” said Karsh, “rather than point a finger at the real culprit for Lebanon’s predicament in general and the Beirut port explosion in particular—namely, Hezbollah and his Iranian paymasters—he has sought to placate the Islamist terror group and to incorporate it into the ‘political dialogue,’ effectively reinforcing its stranglehold over Lebanon.”

Macron did indeed scold Hezbollah during a news conference on Sunday. He said Hezbollah should “not think it is more powerful than it is. … It must show that it respects all the Lebanese. And in recent days, it has clearly shown the opposite.”

Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Steven Cook noted three main reasons why Macron is getting involved.

The first is his concern over another influx of refugees pouring into France.

Second, France is heavily invested in efforts to tap the Mediterranean’s energy resources, especially in its exploration for gas off of the eastern coast of Cyprus, right next to Lebanese waters.

And finally, Macron has no soft feelings for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose intervention in Libya is viewed by Macron as a threat to French interests there.

‘One of the most important assets Iran has left’

David Wurmser, director of the Project on Global anti-Semitism and the U.S.-Israel Relationship at the Center for Security Policy, told JNS that “the real government of Lebanon is Iran right now, which rules through Syria and Hezbollah.”

“Lebanon is perhaps one of the most important assets that Iran still has left beyond Iraq,” he said. “It serves a critical strategic role, as well as financial [one].”

For this reason, according to Wurmser, “the effort to reshape the Lebanese government broke down because the key players in it cannot afford to meaningfully surrender power.”

“Strategically, Lebanon is the anchor to Iran’s attempt to turn the fertile crescent into a contiguous swath of territory from the Gulf to the Mediterranean,” he said. “Without Lebanon, it cannot effectively threaten Israel, and thus loses its ability to exploit the Arab-Israeli conflict to assert some claim to leadership over the broader Islamist world, let alone purchase status in the global third-world ‘liberation’ camp.”

In his recorded speech to the annual U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Netanyahu dropped a bombshell when he exposed Hezbollah rocket warehouses ensconced in civilian neighborhoods and situated near gas-storage facilities. His point: Iran’s threat to Israel is real, and the Islamic regime will even destroy Lebanon to maintain the threat.

According to Wurmser, Lebanon’s importance to Tehran “extends far beyond the geostrategic: the Shi’ites of Lebanon threaten Tehran if left to their own will.”

“Iran lives every day in fear of delegitimization of its regime by Shi’ite clerics,” he said, “which is why control of all major Shi’ite population centres is existentially important for the regime.”

Wurmser noted that “Lebanon has become of the main, if not the main, funding structure still nourishing not only Iran’s external terror structure—Hezbollah, the Iraqi militias and the other parts of the IRGC’s Al Quds Force—but increasingly is also a funnel of money to Iran itself to circumvent sanctions.”

Not only does the regime need to control the global structure of Lebanese Shi’ite funding networks, according to Wurmser, “but also the bank structure, including the central bank of Lebanon and all the government institutions of Lebanon.”

“These have become one of the last bastions compromising the tightening financial noose closing in on Iran,” he said. “Losing control of Lebanon’s government thus is an absolute red line for Tehran. It can under no circumstance genuinely surrender control of it.”

“In short,” he said, “Iran cannot afford to lose full control of Lebanon, and whether invisible or overt, it must retain uncompromised power over all its governmental and banking institutions—let alone over its territory and the Shi’ite community. It will fight to the last Lebanese to maintain its dominance.”

Wurmser said the Lebanese people “only want their country back, and to exit the dangerous and destructive morass of Iranian regional strategic aggression.”

But until Western nations address Iran’s complete domination of Lebanon, he warned, “any effort at Lebanese reform is doomed since it crosses Tehran’s red line.”

He said Lebanon’s reconstruction must start “with the complete expulsion of Iran and its minions from any structure of power or finance; the eradication of all Iranian financial presence and influence; and the removal of all armed militias who answer to Iran. And then to ensure the void is not filled by the other great regional threat: militias answering to Ankara and the neo-Sultan Erdoğan of Turkey, which over the long run intends just as dark a future of Lebanon as the one Iran had thus far imposed on it.”

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