In anticipation of US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia last week, Iran raised the ante in the Middle East in early July. Responding to plans by Washington to consolidate a regional alliance, made up of a number of Arab states and Israel, Iran made a point of showing that it had valuable cards of its own.
Nowhere was this clearer than in the negotiations over offshore gas between Lebanon and Israel. On July 2, Hezbollah flew three drones over Israel’s Karish gas field, issuing a threat. Acting on behalf of Iran, the party was effectively telling the Israelis that it could potentially interrupt Israeli gas production and prevent Karish from coming online if Iran’s interests in Lebanon and the region were opposed.
The overflight by drones came a little more than two weeks after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi visited Israel. The Europeans have been keen to compensate for their cut-off of imports of Russian gas, and see Israeli gas as a possible alternative. Indeed, Ms von der Leyen was quoted as having reiterated “the [EU] need for Israeli gas".
Hezbollah specifically linked its drone operation to the European demand for Israeli gas. In a speech on July 13, the party’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, openly stated: “Lebanon has the ability to obstruct the sale of gas to Europe.”
While the Hezbollah leader placed this in the context of Lebanon’s ongoing negotiations with Israel over contested gas fields, through American mediation, the message was in fact as much a regional one. If Hezbollah’s drones were a signal to the West about the vulnerability of Israeli gas supplies, they also directed a defiant message at the Americans ahead of Mr Biden’s visit to the Middle East.
Washington has been unwilling to make more concessions to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. Last spring, Mr Biden made clear that he had no intention of taking a step that has emerged as a major obstacle to the deal, namely removing Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from the US Foreign Terrorist Organisation blacklist. Meanwhile, Iran has continued to enrich uranium.
On his visit, Mr Biden sought to consolidate a regional alliance against Iran. Last June, The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington had convened a secret meeting of security officials from the US, Israel and key Arab countries in Egypt. The purpose was to create a regional air defence system to counter Iranian missiles and drones.
In light of this, Hezbollah’s drone operation becomes more comprehensible. By showing that they could target Israeli gas supplies to the West, Hezbollah and Iran affirmed they might retaliate against any western and regional efforts to contain Tehran’s ambitions. They also implicitly encouraged reviving the nuclear deal, which would allow Iran itself to export more oil, increasing supply and reducing prices.
Nasrallah raised the level of his rhetoric to state that the party would not hesitate to go to war. He underlined: “If we go to war, we might impose our conditions on the enemy.” However, all sides are still engaged in psychological warfare, where the objective is to achieve political aims without war. News reports indicate that a number of Arab states continue to pursue a dialogue with Iran, through Iraqi mediation. Even the Biden administration has made it clear that it would prefer a negotiated outcome to the nuclear impasse rather than a military solution.
What does this mean for Lebanon? For starters, it suggests that Lebanese gas has become an extension of Iranian interests. If Tehran feels that a US-sponsored anti-Iranian regional alignment may be successful, it is less likely to facilitate any agreement between Israel and Lebanon over their contested offshore gas fields. Instead, Iran will maintain a shadow of war over Israeli gas exports as leverage.
This will not only serve to raise the pressure on western states as winter nears, it could also consolidate the Iranian-Russian relationship. Moscow and Iran are in an ambiguous position. If the nuclear deal with Iran is revived and helps bring Iranian oil to market, Russia’s leverage over Europe may diminish. But if no deal is reached and Iran threatens Israeli gas exports to Europe, this may strengthen Russia’s position.
Lebanon should also assume that its presidential election in autumn will be included in Iranian calculations. If Hezbollah has the numbers to get its preferred candidate elected, which it may well have, then a successor to Michel Aoun may be chosen on time. But if the party doesn’t, we should expect a vacuum until a broader agreement with Iran is reached on regional issues that Tehran considers vital.
Lebanon finds itself in the middle of a new regional cold war. It may continue to suffer heavily as a consequence. As if the past three years of economic and social breakdown were not enough for the country.