Lebanese PM says oil shipments from Iran were ‘not approved’ by his government

Najib Mikati, who took office earlier this month, says dozens of trucks of Iranian diesel organized by Iranian proxy group Hezbollah violate Lebanon’s sovereignty

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati arrives at a cabinet meeting in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati arrives at a cabinet meeting in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, September 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who took office less than 10 days ago, said shipments of Iranian oil into his country violate Lebanon’s sovereignty and were not approved by his government.

“Frankly, I am sad, because this [violates] the sovereignty of Lebanon,” Mikati told CNN about the oil shipments organized by Hezbollah — the first of which arrived on Thursday — in an interview that aired on the network on Friday.

Mikati said that he preferred “not to make any other comment” about the oil shipments “because we are trying to solve this in a very calm way.”

But asked by CNN anchor Becky Anderson about the potential of US sanctions against Lebanon for importing oil from Iran, Mikati said that “since the Lebanese government didn’t approve this… I don’t believe the Lebanese government would be subject to any sanctions.”

Dozens of trucks carrying Iranian diesel fuel arrived in Lebanon on Thursday, the first in a series of deliveries organized by the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group. The overland delivery through neighboring Syria violates US sanctions imposed on Tehran after former president Donald Trump pulled America out of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in 2018.

The shipment is being portrayed as a victory by Hezbollah, which stepped in to supply the fuel from its patron, Iran, while the cash-strapped Lebanese government grapples with months-long fuel shortages that have paralyzed the country. Hezbollah operates independently from Lebanese authorities, which are struggling to deal with a crippling energy crisis. Israel has said it will not interfere with the shipments.

People hold portraits of the head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, as they gather to welcome tankers carrying Iranian fuel, upon their arrival from Syria in the city of Baalbeck, in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, on September 16, 2021. (AFP)

Mikati — whose cabinet includes two Hezbollah-backed ministers — declined to explicitly condemn the terrorist group for the shipments in his comments to CNN.

“I have two ministers, yes they are friends of Hezbollah — and Hezbollah as a political party exists in Lebanon… so I cannot bypass this party,” Mikati said. “I am very pragmatic and what I care for is Lebanon, how I can save Lebanon.”

Therefore, he said, his objective is to “put politics aside, and let’s see how we can save this country.” Mikati added that Beirut is looking for a “big brother” in the Arab world to come and “take Lebanon from this mess. It is to the benefit of all the region and the Arab world to have a stable Lebanon.”

Asked if his government could exert any control over Hezbollah, Mikati told CNN that he vowed to prevent the group from being active overseas.

“Hezbollah is a political party in Lebanon that exists — but the most important [thing] is to not have Lebanon as a platform for any conspiracy against any other country outside of Lebanon,” he said. “That’s the most important for me, that’s what I can promise, what I can do.”

Mikati said he would work to “change the image” of Lebanon in other countries and in international media as a training ground for Iranian-backed terrorists, something he said he has “no proof” is happening.

A Hezbollah supporter throws rice over a convoy of tanker trucks carrying Iranian diesel crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon, arrive at the eastern town of al-Ain, Lebanon, September 16, 2021. (AP/Bilal Hussein)

Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis is rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by the ruling class and a sectarian-based political system that thrives on patronage and nepotism. Severe shortages in fuel have resulted in crippling power cuts. People wait hours in line for gasoline. Protests and scuffles have broken out at gas stations around Lebanon including in some Hezbollah strongholds.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, announced last month that Iran was sending fuel to Lebanon to help ease the crisis. The first Hezbollah-commissioned Iranian oil tanker arrived in the Syrian port of Baniyas on Sunday and the diesel was unloaded to Syrian storage places before it was brought overland to Lebanon on Thursday by tanker trucks.

The convoy of 60 trucks, each carrying 50,000 liters (13,210 gallons), went through an informal border crossing in Qusayr in Syria. Another convoy of 60 tanker trucks arrived on Friday.

Hezbollah, often accused of operating a state-within-a-state, has been taking part in Syria’s civil war alongside government forces. It manages its own crossing points along the Lebanon-Syria border, away from formal border crossings.

A Hezbollah supporter fires a rocket-propelled grenade in the air to celebrate the arrival of Iranian fuel tankers to Lebanon, in the eastern town of Baalbek, Lebanon, September 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Nasrallah said in a televised speech earlier this week that the tanker did not offload its cargo directly in Lebanon to avoid embarrassing authorities and risking sanctions on Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV called it “the tanker truck convoys to break the American siege.” It said the trucks were on their way to the eastern Lebanese city of Baalbek where a Hezbollah-linked distribution company will start distributing the fuel. Nasrallah said the company, al-Amana, which is already under US sanctions, won’t risk new penalties.

For critics, however, the convoy is a symbol of the dissolution of the Lebanese state. While the oil delivery was seen as a victory for Hezbollah, the group is facing growing internal criticism for increasingly pulling Lebanon into Iran’s orbit and for defending its political allies who resist change rather than push for reform.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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