Jordan's foreign minister signals further obstacles to electricity deal with Lebanon

Power exports through Syria were expected to start in March

Privately owned generators light the Mar Mikhael district of Beirut, Lebanon, a country where electricity is scarce. EPA
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Jordan's foreign minister has signalled that the kingdom has to clear more hurdles before it can begin exporting power to Lebanon under a deal that has significant geopolitical implications for the region.

Ayman Al Safadi told the Saudi Arabian-owned Al Sharq TV channel that Jordan was still awaiting US exemption from sanctions imposed on the Assad regime in Syria to start the flow of 250 megawatts of electricity to Lebanon.

The power from Jordan would meet 7 per cent of demand in Lebanon but would have to be delivered through transmission lines passing through areas controlled by President Bashar Al Assad's forces south and west of Damascus.

The deal could enhance Jordan's regional clout and help to end the isolation of Mr Al Assad's regime as its ally Russia tries to convince Arab governments to normalise ties with Damascus. It could also extend Syria's influence in Lebanon, where it maintained a military presence for 29 years until 2015.

Mr Al Safadi said Jordan was still in talks with Washington to exempt the deal from sanctions, which were tightened under the Donald Trump administration two years ago.

"The fact is that there are Caesar Act-related sanctions," Mr Al Safadi said. "The dialogue continues."

The US law passed in 2020 increased penalties for governments and businesses with ties to the Syrian regime and its associates. The legislation was named after the code name of a Syrian military photographer.

He defected after taking pictures of thousands of corpses of jailed dissidents who were killed or who died in regime jails after the outbreak of the Syrian revolt against five decades of Assad family rule in 2011.

The electricity deal could breach the Caesar Act if the Assad government received in-kind payment, in the form of a share of the power flowing through its areas. It also gives the regime a role in regional infrastructure despite being largely ostracised by Arab countries for its violent suppression of the revolt.

Jordan had expected the electricity exports to Lebanon to start in March, two months after the World Bank-funded deal was signed in Beirut.

The Beirut government has been in intermittent talks with international financial institutions to rescue its economy and financial system, which started collapsing at the end of 2019.

The meltdown worsened chronic electricity shortages, a hallmark of life in the country since the 15-year Lebanese civil war ended in 1990.

Mr Al Safadi, who was speaking in Washington after signing a deal for a new aid package from the US, said Jordan was trying to obtain a letter from Washington that specifically guaranteed the kingdom would not face sanctions for supplying the electricity through Syria.

He said Jordan was also waiting for Lebanon to conclude a financial reform deal with the International Monetary Fund and another deal with the US, revealing a new element to the delay of the electricity agreement.

"There is also an effort to make an agreement between Lebanon and the World Bank, and we are waiting for the moment when the Lebanese and Americans make their agreement," Mr Al Safadi said.

"We will be ready then to supply Lebanon with electricity immediately."

He did not specify what he meant by a US-Lebanon deal. Washington has been urging Lebanon to agree to a US-supervised deal with Israel to demarcate maritime borders, after Hezbollah challenged Israeli gas exploration in Mediterranean fields also claimed by Lebanon.

The US, Jordan's largest donor, has been the main proponent of the electricity agreement, despite its opposition to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Shiite group that wields large influence over Lebanese affairs.

Washington is also opposed to any reconstruction assistance to the Syrian regime in the absence of a vaguely defined political transition in the country, which world powers agreed on in Geneva in 2012.

But little has been heard from Washington about the electricity deal since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February.

Updated: September 18, 2022, 1:59 PM