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Lebanon’s fate linked to regional settlement

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BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 28 (UPI) — Lebanon, stuck in an uphill struggle between the United States and Iran, will have to wait for a settlement in the region to regain some political and economic stability and deal with the growing influence of Hezbollah, experts say.

“There is an escalation of tension between the U.S. and its Arab friends on one hand and Iran on the other,” Nassif Hitti, Lebanon’s former foreign minister, who was the first to resign from the government of Hassan Diab on Aug. 3, told UPI. “We are in an escalatory mood from both sides…It is unclear how much Lebanon could therefore be isolated.”

France’s efforts to save Lebanon from its financial crisis received a blow when Prime Minister-designate Mustapha Adib stepped down on Saturday, dropping efforts to form a new non-partisan Cabinet. The country’s two Shiite groups, the Amal movement and the Iran-backed, heavily armed Hezbollah, have refused to back down on demands to take back the Finance Ministry and name the Shiite ministers in the new government.

French President Emmanuel Macron, who accused the Lebanese political leaders of “collective betrayal” after they promised to form a Cabinet by Sept. 15 as part of a roadmap to reforms that would unblock foreign aid, is not yet ready to abandon Lebanon.

Macron said during a press conference in Paris on Sunday that he was “ashamed” of the country’s politicians, whom he accused of serving their own interests “to the general detriment of the country.”

He specifically attacked Hezbollah for obstructing the formation of a “mission cabinet,” saying that Iran’s proxy should “not think it is more powerful than it is” and cannot be “at the same time an army at war with Israel, an unrestrained militia against civilians in Syria and a respectable party in Lebanon.”

Macron said he has “no proof” that Iran was behind Hezbollah’s efforts to thwart his initiative to save Lebanon, keeping the door open with Tehran to attempt resolve the Cabinet issue.

“The French were banking on the fact that the crisis is very dangerous this time, that everyone has interest to see Lebanon not going down and that all [Lebanese leaders] will accept a new government of mission to save the country…otherwise they will all sink,” Hitti said. “They tried to separate between the economic situation and the ongoing political struggle.”

U.S.-Iran tension

France soon discovered it is not that simple as tension is rising in the region. The United States and its rich Arab supporters are not ready to help Lebanon out of its economic crisis without curtailing Hezbollah and Iran’s influence. Lebanese leaders, most of whom have been in power for more than 40 years, are rejecting real reforms.

“The Lebanese political leaders have a strong capacity to resist genuine structural reforms and any serious change,” Hitti said, adding that Hezbollah, which is “a powerful well-armed party somehow feels that it can still resist the mounting pressures for it does not want Lebanon to get closer to France and be forced out of Iran’s axis…But to what extent it can keep on gambling?”

On the other hand, the United States and its Arab and European allies, are not ready to rescue Lebanon “without political conditions and so help Iran further consolidate its grip on Lebanon and keep all the cards in its hands,” said Hitti, who is also a diplomat and a political science professor at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik.

Iran, in return, will not play Lebanon’s card now and make concessions to France, as future negotiations with Washington hinge on the Nov. 3 presidential election, observers say. If former Vice President Joe Biden beats President Donald Trump, it does not mean Biden will adopt a different, more lenient approach toward Iran.

“With Biden, negotiations could be more complicated. Besides the nuclear agreement, they would include Iran’s expansion in the region, meaning its presence in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, as well as its missile program,” Michel Nawfal, an expert on Middle East Affairs and former editor in-chief of the Institute for Palestinian Studies, told UPI.

Nawfal noted that Iran has been keeping a low profile, awaiting the U.S. election.

“They haven’t retaliated to the assassination of [top Iranian Gen.] Qassem Soleimani [on Jan. 3 in Baghdad] and to all the unexplained explosions that rocked Tehran in July and which they suspect Israel was behind them.”

‘The upper hand’

However, Iran has interests in complicating the complex situation in Lebanon and thus pushed Hezbollah to thwart Macron’s initiative, by “defending Shiites rights” through the Finance Ministry maneuver, according to the experts.

“It was a message to say that Iran has the upper hand in Lebanon,” Nawfal said. “But Hezbollah is greatly mistaken in obstructing the French initiative after the setbacks he suffered. When the youth took to the streets last Oct. 17 against the ruling elite, when it put together the Cabinet of Hassan Diab and it failed and when the [Aug. 4] massive blast occurred at the Beirut port.”

Nawfal explained that “the ascendance of Iran as a regional power greatly benefited the Shiites in Lebanon at a time the Americans are withdrawing from the region.”

But it is time, according to Macron, for Hezbollah and the Amal movement of House Speaker Nabih Berri to choose between “democracy and the interests of Lebanon or the worst.”

He thus gave them and the other Lebanese leaders “a last chance” to form a Cabinet and respect their commitments within four to six weeks — a deadline that falls after the U.S. elections.

The question is whether Lebanon can possibly hold until that time to keep the specter of war away and avoid social unrest, chaos and total collapse.

“We are still away from a regional settlement. Even if Biden wins, the conflict with Iran will remain, though it could ease up,” Hitti said, adding that when the time comes for such a settlement, “no one is going to hand over Lebanon to Iran and allow it to be at the border with Israel and the Mediterranean.”

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