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