Iranian foreign minister to hold talks with Lebanese leaders in Beirut

Dozens of people protested against the visit on Wednesday

Iran's foreign minister will meet top Lebanese officials on Thursday, a month after the formation of a new government tasked with leading the country out of economic crisis.

Hossein Amirabdollahian is scheduled to arrive in Beirut on Wednesday evening after an official trip to Moscow, a Hezbollah representative told The National.

Mr Amirabdollahian is expected to meet the country’s top politicians and the leadership of the Iran-backed group, in a visit that activists perceive as another sign of Tehran’s growing influence over Lebanon.

He will meet President Michel Aoun, Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Thursday morning.

Later in the day he will meet the Lebanese foreign minister, Abdullah Bou Habib.

A few dozen protesters on Wednesday waved Lebanese flags and banners that read “Iran out”. They marched from Beirut's Ashrafieh district to the Foreign Ministry to decry his visit.

“My message to him is simple: don’t come. You are not welcome here,” said Georges Tarraf, 28, a protester carrying a Lebanese flag.

“We wanted to block the airport road upon his arrival but unfortunately that part of Beirut is not ours,” the activist said in reference to the southern suburbs of the capital controlled by Hezbollah.

The Shiite group is the only militia that still holds on to its weapons arsenal after the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war in 1990.

The group, which enjoys huge influence on Lebanese life, is also represented in parliament and has backed ministers in government.

Mr Amirabdollahian will meet the group’s leadership on Thursday but details of the engagement have not yet been finalised, the Hezbollah representative said.

He is the second most senior foreign politician to visit Beirut after Mr Mikati formed a new government last month. The first was Jordan's prime minister, but Amman plays a limited role in Lebanese politics.

Bisher Al Khasawneh was in Beirut last week to discuss a potential US-backed deal to provide electricity and gas to Lebanon through Jordan and Syria. The talks came in response to Hezbollah's recent shipments of Iranian fuel as Lebanon suffers from severe energy shortages.

Mr Amirabdollahian’s visit follows the arrival of the third Iran fuel tanker in Syria.

Lorries brought the petrol to Lebanon by land crossing the porous eastern border with Syria, an area renowned for smuggling Lebanese petrol the other way around.

“Hezbollah has smuggled all of Lebanon’s fuel oil to Syria,” Mr Tarraf said at Sassine Square in Beirut's biggest Christian neighbourhood.

“Let them return the fuel they smuggled and we wouldn’t need any Iranian oil.”

Mr Mikati said in a televised interview that he was saddened by the illegal fuel imports. He denied any involvement from Lebanese authorities in securing Iranian fuel.

Fuel shortages in the cash-strapped country have compounded electricity cuts, sometimes lasting 24 hours a day, and left gas stations short on petrol.

Lebanon has suffered from a severe economic crisis since late 2019, partly fuelled by a lack of foreign currencies and decades of widespread corruption by the country’s sectarian ruling class.

Experts previously told The National that securing fuel oil at a time of shortages helped Hezbollah score points, despite exposing the country to western reprisals for accepting US-sanctioned petrol from Iran.

Anwar Sayyah, a protester in his forties, said he had hoped to see more people at the small gathering but that two years of worsening economic crisis have demoralised many Lebanese.

“Maybe people have other priorities right now. People are busy searching for necessities: fuel, bread… People cannot afford to stop and ask for their dignity.”

Updated: October 6th 2021, 8:08 PM
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