Following the lightning visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to Lebanon on August 7, 2020, Iran and Hizbullah issued similar messages. Both expressed concern that France will intervene in Lebanon’s internal affairs in ways that might damage both the Iranian regime and Hizbullah’s favored status in Lebanon. At the same time, the two continue raising questions about the circumstances and the causes behind the recent explosion.
Iranian regime officials echoed by the state-run media pointed a finger at “external interference” and especially at French President Macron. They saw Macron inciting and leading demonstrations against the Lebanese government, in which protesters lambasted Hizbullah and its terror activities and its patron Iran.
The Iranian television correspondent in Beirut, Hassan Azimzadeh, reported, “Those who profit most from the current situation in Lebanon are those who lead the demonstrations in the country.” According to Azimzadeh, Macron’s visit represents a direct and blatant intervention in Lebanon’s internal affairs, and Macron’s remarks on the need for political reform and constitutional change reinforce the desire of foreign parties to take advantage of the situation and intervene in Lebanon’s affairs. Azimzadeh said that Macron represents “a movement supported by America and Zionist regime.”
Iran’s president and its foreign ministry offered condolences to their Lebanese counterparts and declared readiness to send humanitarian aid. In addition, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hossein Salami, and the head of the Iranian Red Crescent Society promised to provide humanitarian aid to the victims of the catastrophe.
On the other hand, Iranians on social media took the opportunity of the explosion to criticize the Iranian involvement in Lebanon and published life-size cutouts of Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah hanging in a noose.1 At the same time, the Tasnim News Agency, affiliated with the IRGC, published an illustration showing Iranian identification with the Lebanese people.
The ultra-conservative daily Kayhan, which usually reflects the positions of the Iranian leader Khamenei, headlined on August 9, 2020: “Does Macron support the Lebanese people, or is he an accomplice to explosion’s suspects?”
In the body of the article, there was a reference to Israeli “military provocations” on the Lebanese-Israeli border that preceded the explosion and to “Macron’s unwelcomed visit,” which evoked “bitter memories” of Lebanon’s colonial past. Kayhan wrote that Macron threatened international sanctions if Lebanon does not introduce a series of needed reforms and political change.
Earlier, on August 6, 2020, Kayhan suggested in an editorial entitled: “The explosion in Beirut is an incident or a terrorist plot.” It wrote that maybe the “terror organization CENTCOM (the U.S. Army Central Command, responsible for operations in the region)” and its ally Israel stand behind the Beirut explosion. After all, the paper continued, “an ‘attack’ was mentioned by President Trump, who tweeted after the explosion.” The newspaper said the tweet, which was later deleted, could provide answers to the explosion.
In this spirit, Ibrahim Al-Amin, a columnist for the left-leaning Al Akhbar newspaper who is close to Hizbullah, criticized in an op-ed on August 7, 2020, after Macron’s visit all those who called for the return of French colonialism to Lebanon and who gave extensive and sympathetic press coverage to the visit. For example, Al -Amin wondered whether anyone bothered to ask Macron about the “kidnapping” and arrest of the Lebanese citizen George Abdullah (arrested in 1984 and sentenced to prison after being convicted of the murder of the Israeli diplomat Yaakov Simantov and the American military attaché in Paris). In the past, Al-Amin hinted in several articles that French citizens should be kidnapped to secure the release of George Abdullah.
Al-Amin also questioned whether anyone reminded Macron about French soldiers’ deployment in Lebanon following Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon “These French soldiers from an occupation force were killed in Lebanon by Hizbullah fighters who acted in the spirit of the French resistance to the Nazi occupation.”
Al-Amin added that despite all of France’s attempts to revive the French spirit in Lebanon, its colonial role in the country are over. “In light of the Lebanese Nakba [the port blast],” the timing the French president chose to arrive in Lebanon and offer his assistance with the support of the United States, the allies in the Persian Gulf (mainly Saudi Arabia), and Israel is not accidental. It evoked suspicion that France wanted to distribute aid not through Lebanese governmental institutions, but through civil society organizations, which would open a window of opportunity for Western intelligence organizations to become involved in Lebanon’s affairs through these aid organizations.
Al-Amin concluded by saying that Macron had nothing to offer Lebanon other than elitism and Western terms intended for the re-colonization of Lebanon, which some Lebanese citizens yearn for. The worst thing that might happen is that Macron can provoke an internal controversy that could push some people to cry out for French aid and intervention. However, Macron has to know that Lebanon has changed, and he has to “wake up from his dreams before September rains.”
Iran’s Kayhan newspaper expounded on the threats to the region from France, the United States, and Israel on August 11, 2020:
While the people of Beirut are still in a state of deep shock… the regimes of the United States and West Europe, especially France, are playing dirty politics… including a threat to undermine the elected government. Macron is mistaken if he thinks that Paris can still dictate to Beirut as it used to do between the two world wars of the last century….
It is ridiculous for the French president, or for that matter the president of the United States, to impose their wills on the Lebanese people and government on the pretext of forcing western-oriented reforms that neither guarantee Lebanon’s independence and territorial integrity nor resolve the economic hardships of the people, let alone save them from the aggressions of the illegal Zionist entity next door in Occupied Palestine…. The current economic crisis in Lebanon is the result of sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies, which have caused the Lebanese pound to lose more than 80 percent of its value.
The unruly scenes of the past few days in Beirut where rioters on the payroll of the West, the Zionists, and Arab reactionary regimes are trying to disturb the peace of the survivors by posing as patriots and calling for the resignation of the elected government, warrants tough disciplinary measures from the authorities in order to prevent chaos…. As usual, the legendary anti-terrorist movement, the Hezbollah, has declared its support for the nation, pledging to mobilize all efforts to help overcome the present crisis, in addition to its heroic role in guarding the southern frontiers of Lebanon against any provocative move by Israel.
In view of these facts, Macron should be told without the least formalities, that his unwarranted visit has caused enough damage, and now he is no longer welcome in Beirut.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, “It is natural for people to be frustrated.” But it would be “unacceptable if some individuals, groups, and foreign countries use the incident as a pretext for their purposes and intentions.” Regarding Macron’s visit, Mousavi declared, “Some countries have been trying to politicize this blast for their own interests…the blast should not be used as an excuse for political aims … if America is honest about its assistance offer to Lebanon, they should lift sanctions.”
Limiting French Intervention
Following the explosion in the Beirut port, Iran and Hizbullah have clear interests in limiting French intervention specifically, as well as Western and Arab involvement in general in Lebanon and reducing the demonstrations and protests within Lebanon against Hizbullah. It took time for both Hizbullah and Iran to reduce the international and internal pressure on them following the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Al-Hariri in 2005. [A special international tribunal is scheduled to give a verdict next week against Hizbullah personnel on trial in abstentia for the murder.]
Now, Iran and Hizbullah are facing a similar task, taking into account the dire economic situation in Lebanon and its inability to receive aid via its damaged port. In addition, Iran’s ability to help Lebanon via Hizbullah has diminished dramatically since it faces ongoing sanctions. Against the background of the volatile Lebanese demonstrations, which started on October 17, 2019, against corruption, the dire economic situation, and food shortages, the protests may resume and continue for a long time. Now more than ever, protesters will demand a change of government and the weakening of Hizbullah grip, which poses more than ever an obstacle to international aid in Lebanon.
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