The 33,000 metric tonnes of Iranian fuel oil reported by a maritime monitoring group to be bound for Lebanon will only cover around three days of the country’s needs, Lebanese fuel importers and private generator owners told The National on Wednesday.
Two Iranian ships are reportedly on their way to Lebanon following a controversial deal struck by Lebanese Iran-backed group Hezbollah via Lebanese Shiite businessmen and Iran.
Lebanon is suffering from crippling fuel shortages that have caused the near-collapse of its electricity sector.
The Faxon tanker, which is carrying 33,000 metric tonnes of gasoil, a light fuel oil used specifically in generators, was expected to reach the Suez Canal on Tuesday evening. The canal requires ships to turn on their automatic tracking systems (ATS) so they will be visible.
But Faxon's ATS remains off for reasons that are unclear, meaning her exact location is not yet public, said shipping monitoring group TankerTrackers.com, which uses satellite imagery to locate tankers across the globe.
Lebanon uses gasoil mostly for private generators run by a highly organised decade-old network of owners across the country.
State-run Electricite du Liban has never produced enough electricity to meet demand and generators kick in during power cuts. But in the past months, generator owners have been struggling to work as gasoil becomes scarce and state-powered electricity drops to an hour or two a day, causing blackouts across the country.
Both Abdo Saade, head of the union of generator owners, and George Fayad, the head of the association of petroleum importing companies, said Lebanon’s daily consumption of gasoil reaches 15 million litres a day. The Faxon’s load is equivalent to about 40 million litres of gasoil, said Mr Fayad, so “it is less than three days of consumption”.
A Hezbollah spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
It remains unclear whether the fuel, which is under US sanctions, will be unloaded in Lebanon or in neighbouring Syria and then brought by truck. The leader of the Iran-backed group, Hassan Nasrallah, has said previously that the fuel would be intended for hospitals and bakeries among others.
The group, which has bypassed the Lebanese government, also hinted at several shipments, and Samir Madani, co-founder and chief analyst at TankerTrackers.com, told The National a second Iranian ship is a week behind the Faxon.
“Given that this product is under sanctions, we can only speculate who the end user may be,” said Mona Sukkarieh, political risk consultant and co-founder of Middle East Strategic Perspectives. “Official Lebanese institutions have been very reserved so far in their public declarations and I doubt that they would run the risk of dealing with this product.”
The US has alluded that it may turn a blind eye to Lebanese hospitals that buy Iranian fuel.
“I don’t think anyone is going to fall on their sword if someone’s able to get fuel into hospitals that need it,” US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea told Al Arabiya English on August 19. “But I think the Lebanese people deserve importers of fuel to distribute it equitably. And I ask you, can you count on Hezbollah to do that?” said Ms Shea.
The US Department of State was not immediately available for comment on the latest shipment.
Importing Iranian fuel is ultimately a political move by Hezbollah, experts said.
“This is above all a political decision, motivated by political considerations, including breaking the taboo of importing sanctioned Iranian products and consolidating its status among its constituency as a reliable provider whenever the state fails to deliver services,” said Ms Sukkarieh.
“They are using the bad situation in the country to enforce the ties between Iran and Lebanon,” said Laury Haytayan, an oil and gas governance expert.