Will indirect gas transfers via Jordan and Syria counterbalance Iran’s influence over Lebanon?

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

Israel has signed U.S.-brokered agreement to supply Lebanon with natural gas to reduce Iranian influence over Beirut, Israel’s Channel 12 News reported on Saturday.

According to the report, gas from Israel’s offshore Leviathan gas field will be transferred to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria. However, transfers may not begin for several years pending the repair and extension of an existing Syria-Lebanon gas line.

The unsourced Channel 12 report said the agreement was brokered by Amos Hochstein, Washington’s Special Envoy and Coordinator for International Energy Affairs. Hochstein has been mediating Israel and Lebanon’s maritime border dispute, and in November, he notified Jerusalem and Beirut that he would cease his efforts if no agreement was reached by March 2022, when Lebanon is scheduled to hold elections.

The American mediation goes back through the presidencies of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. At stake is natural gas in a 856 sq km area of the Eastern Mediterranean.

It’s not believed that this weekend’s agreement addressed the border dispute.

The Lebanese pound has lost 90 percent of its value in the last two years. As a result, the government unable to provide fuel to power plants for the last six months, leaving the country with two hours of electricity a day. Filling up a gasoline tank now costs more than the monthly minimum wage.

The ruling class, which has run Lebanon into the ground, has proved unwilling to reform and has done almost nothing to try to pull the country out of its meltdown, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement.

Amid the paralysis, Iran delivered one million gallons of diesel to Lebanon via Hezbollah in September. Lebanese state agencies that would normally oversee fuel imports were not involved in that transfer, raising criticism that Iran was undercutting Lebanese sovereignty. Since then, fuel deliveries reach Hezbollah over land through Syria, skirting Beirut’s oversight.

Whether or not Israeli gas will pull counterbalance Iranian influence is open to debate. Sales may begin to crack longstanding Lebanese taboos on contacts with the Jewish state and Israel may win the hearts and minds of some Lebanese. It may also undercut Iranian companies from drilling in Lebanese waters in sight of Israel’s gas fields.

But propping up Beirut runs the risk of freeing up Hezbollah and Iran to simply use their resources elsewhere.

Channel 12 also reported that the agreement was coordinated with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Having the gas flow through Syria also gives Bashar Assad’s regime a degree of unwarranted legitimacy. Jerusalem and Moscow may be calculating that this will lessen Tehran’s influence on Damascus.

Time will tell.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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