Iran wants to make Lebanon's military 'the region's strongest'
Iran has dispatched its top diplomat to Beirut in an attempt to win over the newly formed Lebanese government with military and civilian aid, a move meant to counter US and Saudi influence in the country and prop-up Tehran-backed Hizballah's position.
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrived in the Lebanese capital on Sunday for a two-day visit, at the head of a large delegation of Iranian officials and business leaders.
The visit comes less than two weeks after Lebanon formed a cabinet following a nine-month delay, giving the health ministry - and its sizeable budget - to Hizballah. The appointment raised immediate US concerns that its funds could be used by the militant group to fund its activities, but Hizballah denied the allegations last week.
After meeting Lebanon's ruling troika on Monday - the president, prime minister and parliament speaker - Zarif will attend an Iranian embassy event marking the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
"The visit is a message for the West in particular. For Iran, lebanon and Hizballah in particular is a very successful model for exporting Iran's ideology and influence," Dr. Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based Middle East and Iran expert, told The New Arab.
The visit also aims to boost Hizballah "and highlight the fact that Iran is everywhere in the region and still have cards to play against mounting US and Israeli pressure, not only in Iraq, Syria and Yemen but also in Lebanon", he added.
The Iranian charm offensive in Lebanon, one of Tehran's key areas of foreign influence, will likely raise alarm bells in the capitals of its foes - from Riyadh to Washington and Tel Aviv.
Saudi Arabia has already confirmed that it will send Nizar al-Aloula, a high-level envoy, to Lebanon this week, while the Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit is in Beirut, racing with Zarif to hold meetings with the country's leaders.
Saudi influence in Lebanon has declined in recent years, due to its focus on countering the Arab Spring and the wars in Yemen and Syria.
It took another hit when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was rumoured to have staged the kidnapping of Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri in November 2017.
However, small Lebanon seems to be returning to the fore in recent months as an arena for regional powers vying to assert their influence.
|The US has since pressured its allies in Lebanon, who include Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, to refuse any offer of military aid from adversarial powers such as Russia and Iran.|
'Strongest army in the region'
Last week, Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah said he was ready to secure air defence systems for the traditionally US-backed Lebanese army to confront Israeli warplanes and secure from Iran "everything it wants to be the strongest army in the region".
On Sunday, Zarif said Iran is waiting for Lebanon to show a desire to accept its military assistance.
"We always have this type of readiness and we announced on other occasions that this tendency exists in Iran but we are waiting for this desire to exist on the Lebanese side," Zarif told reporters upon arriving at Beirut International Airport.
Since the end of the three-decade Syrian army presence in Lebanon, the US and its allies have almost monopolised the supply of weaponry to the Lebanese Armed Forces(LAF). The US wants to ensure the LAF do not receive equipment that could pose a threat to Israel. But it is also seeking to strengthen the army as "the sole" legitimate military force in Lebanon, and to serve as a counterweight to the increasingly powerful Hizballah militia.
The US has since pressured its allies in Lebanon, who include Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, to refuse any offer of military aid from adversarial powers such as Russia and Iran.
Experts on the region say Tehran's military aid promise is little more than a public relations stunt for Iran.
"Iran is not in a position to help Lebanon militarily," Dr. Ali Bakeer, the Middle East expert, told The New Arab.
"The Iranian economy is in dire situation and Iranians are becoming very sensitive to this type of foreign financial spending. Hizballah alone is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars from Tehran. And if Iran had effective anti-aircraft systems, then it would be better for them to protect their forces in Syria against hundreds of Israeli raids rather than giving them to Lebanon," he added.
"It is just a political play but such Iranian moves would hurt Lebanon, increase its regional isolation and endanger its economy and security."
Follow Karim Traboulsi on Twitter @kareemios