RE­FINER­IES

Executive Magazine - - Special Report - MONA SUKKARIEH is the co­founder of Mid­dle East Strate­gic Per­spec­tives, a Beirut based po­lit­i­cal risk con­sul­tancy.

In the past, Iran has of­fered to re­ha­bil­i­tate Le­banon’s two re­finer­ies. But it re­mains to be seen what Le­banon in­tends to do with them. Pre­vi­ous fea­si­bil­ity stud­ies on the re­pair and mod­ern­iza­tion of the re­finer­ies ques­tioned the util­ity of the pro­ject, from an eco­nomic point of view.

Backed by an ex­ten­sive and in­flu­en­tial net­work of Le­banese-Ira­nian busi­ness­men, Iran per­ceives Le­banon as a plat­form for de­vel­op­ing its busi­ness pres­ence in the Eastern Mediter­ranean, a re­gion of ris­ing strate­gic im­por­tance for Tehran. As usual, here too, there is com­pe­ti­tion. Iran’s Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter for Asia and Pa­cific Af­fairs Ibrahim Rahim­pour vis­ited Cyprus on Septem­ber 20, a visit that fol­lowed Cypriot Energy Min­is­ter Ge­or­gios Lakkotrypis’ visit to Tehran in Fe­bru­ary 2015, high­light­ing both coun­tries’ de­ter­mi­na­tion to strengthen co­op­er­a­tion. Rahim­pour re­it­er­ated Iran’s of­fer to help Cyprus in the field of ex­plo­ration, drilling, re­fin­ing of oil and gas, and train­ing of spe­cial­ists. Tim­ing is of essence, and as the ex­pe­ri­ence with the first li­cens­ing round shows, Le­banon does not take into con­sid­er­a­tion the time fac­tor.

In the past few years, few projects of co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Le­banon and Iran were able to ma­te­ri­al­ize, for po­lit­i­cal and le­gal rea­sons. With the lift­ing of sanc­tions, one of these ob­sta­cles has been re­moved. But, with­out a le­gal ar­gu­ment, it is go­ing to be much harder now to jus­tify au­to­mat­i­cally re­ject­ing co­op­er­a­tion with Iran. In to­day’s con­text, deal­ing with Iran could be met with a form of sus­pi­cion by cer­tain Le­banese. The energy sec­tor, un­like other more “sen­si­tive” ar­eas of co­op­er­a­tion (such as mil­i­tary), can rep­re­sent a good start.

Iran may even sur­prise the re­luc­tants in Le­banon by adopt­ing a non-con­fronta­tional ap­proach. Ira­ni­ans are more likely to di­ver­sify their busi­ness part­ners in the coun­try (whether Le­banese or non-Le­banese, depend­ing on the pro­ject), and will prob­a­bly seek to ini­ti­ate projects that would be per­ceived as ben­e­fit­ting the coun­try, and not just a par­tic­u­lar seg­ment of so­ci­ety. The op­po­site would in­deed be counter-pro­duc­tive.

In the past, there is no doubt that Iran’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to break the em­bargo could have mo­ti­vated much of its over­tures to­wards Le­banon’s energy sec­tor. Once sanc­tions are re­moved, will Ira­ni­ans be as mo­ti­vated to be in­volved in Le­banon’s energy sec­tor as they were be­fore? If the an­swer to this ques­tion is un­cer­tain, it is on the other hand cer­tain that the com­pe­ti­tion at the geopo­lit­i­cal level with Saudi Ara­bia will en­cour­age Ira­nian ini­tia­tives di­rected to­wards Le­banon.

Iran’s Am­bas­sador to Le­banon, Mo­ham­mad Fathali

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