Senior US official Barbara Leaf said on Wednesday that “there is no rescue coming from the outside” for Lebanon as it struggles with a deepening economic crisis and endemic corruption.
Ms Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs nominee, stressed at her Senate confirmation hearing the need for Beirut to undertake urgent reforms before any outside aid is delivered.
“This [Lebanese] government having been formed is only the first minimal step on what has to be a long road of structural economic reform, which will then unlock international financing loans and other forms of foreign assistance,” said Ms Leaf, who currently serves as the Middle East director on the US National Security Council.
Last week, Lebanese leaders allowed Prime Minister Najib Mikati to form a government after more than a year of political paralysis. The Lebanese currency is in free fall, losing more than 90 per cent of its value since October 2019, and the country has experienced rampant fuel and medicine shortages.
Ms Leaf said the administration of President Joe Biden is working closely with the French government on a two-pronged strategy to help ease the crisis.
But this strategy requires “a need for pressure and inducements”, she added, saying that there is a “long, slow road ahead".
One option the White House is considering would entail requesting a waiver from Congress to allow fuel shipments to be sent to Lebanon from Egypt and Jordan through Syria. Normally, such transactions would be subject to US sanctions and a violation of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 (the Caesar Act).
At the hearing, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez, showed a willingness to make such an exemption, but only as a last resort.
On Iran, Ms Leaf committed to returning to the nuclear deal and to separately address Tehran’s behaviour.
“Iran's nuclear programme is untrammeled. So, the priority is getting it back into a box. But notwithstanding those diplomatic efforts in Vienna, the administration continues in parallel, in tandem to, on a constant basis, address the regional dimension of Iran's disruptive behaviour,” she said.
Several senators, including Mr Menendez, Jim Risch and Ted Cruz, have urged the administration to link any return to the deal with Tehran require that they change their regional behaviour.
The senators also pressed Ms Leaf to build on the progress made in the Abraham Accords, which normalised relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.
“If confirmed, I very much look forward to seizing the opportunities opened with those nascent relationships and expanding the circle beyond the four countries,” Ms Leaf, who is a former ambassador to the UAE, told the committee.
Ms Leaf also confirmed the partial hold on military aid to Egypt as a result of its human rights record but stressed the importance of the strategic partnership.
“We have long-standing national security interests and Egypt has been a strategic partner of enormous importance for the US, for the region and for Israel in particular,” she said.
In addition to serving as ambassador to the UAE, Ms Leaf has served in several positions at the State Department, including as deputy assistant secretary of state for the Arabian Peninsula, deputy assistant secretary for Iraq and the first director of the Office of Iranian Affairs.