US senators warn against Iranian fuel shipments to Lebanon

Sep 1, 2021, 11:03 AM | Updated: 12:10 pm

BEIRUT (AP) — A delegation of four U.S. senators said Wednesday that America is looking to help Lebanon overcome fuel shortages that have paralyzed the country. But they warned the import of Iranian oil into the crisis-hit country could have “severely damaging consequences.”

The Democratic senators pushed for the immediate formation of a Lebanese government that can begin urgent reforms. They also vowed support for Lebanon’s U.S.-backed army. The troops saw their salaries lose more than 90% of their value amid a crash in Lebanon’s pound in the economic meltdown that began nearly two years ago.

“It is inexcusable that in the middle of this life-threatening crisis, the political leaders in Lebanon have refused to make the tough choices in order to form a government,” Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut told reporters at the end of the two-day visit. He said Lebanon needs a government that can negotiate with the International Monetary Fund and start reforms to reduce corruption that is widespread in the Mediterranean nation.

During a visit that included meetings with Lebanon’s president, parliament speaker and prime minister-designate, the American lawmakers said they received promises that a new government will be formed before the end of the week.

The visit to Lebanon came two weeks after the leader of the Iran-backed militant Hezbollah group said that an Iranian fuel tanker has sailed toward Lebanon, and that others will follow to help ease the fuel shortages.

The delivery, organized by Hezbollah, would violate U.S. sanctions imposed on Tehran after former President Donald Trump pulled America out of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut blasted Hezbollah as a “malignant cancerous terrorist organization” adding that they have heard “very troublingly about maligned Iranian influence particularly in providing fuel.”

Blumenthal added that there is no reason for Lebanon to depend on Iran because there are plenty of “other sources of fuel without the potential severely damaging consequences of reliance on Iranian oil.”

Lebanon has been without a fully functioning government since Aug. 10, 2020, when Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s Cabinet resigned days after a massive blast at Beirut’s port that killed at least 214 people, wounded about 6,000 and damaged entire neighborhoods.

Three politicians have been named to form a Cabinet since, but political bickering between rival groups have so far forced two of them to step down. Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati was named to the post in late July but has also been unsuccessful so far.

Lebanon’s economic crisis has been described by the World Bank as one of the most severe the world has witnessed since the 1850s. The local currency has crashed as the central bank’s foreign reserves dried up, leading to crippling shortages of medicines, fuel and gas.

The U.S. has suggested that Washington would help Lebanon get electricity from Jordan and facilitate the flow of Egyptian gas through Jordan and Syria to northern Lebanon.

Murphy said fuel transits through Syria are potentially subject to congressionally mandated sanctions but that they are working through “whether or not we can help facilitate that transit without applying U.S. sanctions.”

“My hope is that we could find a way to get this done that would not involve any U.S. sanctions,” Murphy said, adding that this is only one of many ways “we are working hard to try to find a solution to the fuel crisis.”

Blumenthal said the senators are exploring very specific ways to bring the current pay of Lebanese troops to the level where they were before the crisis, “maybe even higher.” He did not elaborate how but said they will discuss it back in the U.S. with the congressional armed services committee.

“The armed services in this country is the glue that holds the country together in many respects,” Blumenthal said.

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US senators warn against Iranian fuel shipments to Lebanon