Iran Is Seeking Lebanon Stake as Syria Totters (NY) TIMES) By NEIL MacFARQUHAR TANNOURINE, Lebanon 05/25/12)
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TANNOURINE, Lebanon — The Islamic republic of Iran recently offered
to build a dam in this scenic alpine village, high in the Christian
heartland of Lebanon.
Farther south, in the dense suburbs of Beirut, Iranian largess helped
to rebuild neighborhoods flattened six years ago by Israeli bombs —
an achievement that was commemorated this month with a rollicking
“By the same means that we got weapons and other stuff, money came as
well,” the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, exclaimed to roars of
approval from the crowd. “All of this has been achieved through
Iran’s eagerness to shower money on Lebanon when its own finances are
being squeezed by sanctions is the latest indication of just how
worried Tehran is at the prospect that Syria’s leader, Bashar al-
Assad, could fall. Iran relies on Syria as its bridge to the Arab
world, and as a crucial strategic partner in confronting Israel. But
the Arab revolts have shaken Tehran’s calculations, with Mr. Assad
unable to vanquish an uprising that is in its 15th month.
Iran’s ardent courtship of the Lebanese government indicates that
Tehran is scrambling to find a replacement for its closest Arab ally,
politicians, diplomats and analysts say. It is not only financing
public projects, but also seeking to forge closer ties through
cultural, military and economic agreements.
The challenge for Iran’s leaders is that many Lebanese — including
the residents of Tannourine, the site of the proposed hydroelectric
dam — squirm in that embrace. They see Iran’s gestures not as a show
of good will, but as a stealth cultural and military colonization.
“Tannourine is not Tehran,” groused Charbel Komair, a city council
The Lebanese have largely accepted that Iran serves as Hezbollah’s
main patron for everything from missiles to dairy cows. But branching
out beyond the Shiites of Hezbollah is another matter.
“They are trying to reinforce their base in Lebanon to face any
eventual collapse of the regime in Syria,” said Marwan Hamade, a
Druse leader and Parliament member, noting that a collapse would
sever the “umbilical cord” through which Iran supplied Hezbollah and
gained largely unfettered access to Lebanon for decades.
“Hezbollah has developed into being a beachhead of Iranian influence
not only in Lebanon, but on the Mediterranean — trying to spread
Iranian culture, Iranian political domination and now an Iranian
economic presence,” Mr. Hamade said. “But there is a kind of Lebanese
rejection of too much Iranian involvement here.”
That has not stopped Iran from trying. Mohammad-Reza Rahimi, Iran’s
first vice president, arrived in Beirut a couple of weeks ago with at
least a dozen proposals for Iranian-financed projects tucked under
his arm, one for virtually every ministry, Lebanese officials said.
The size of the Iranian delegation — more than 100 members — shocked
government officials. Lebanese newspapers gleefully reported
embarrassing details of the wooing; in their haste to repeat their
success in forging closer ties with Iraq, for example, the Iranians
forgot to replace the word Baghdad with Beirut in one draft agreement.
Iran offered to build the infrastructure needed to carry electricity
across Iraq and Syria into Lebanon. It offered to underwrite Persian-
language courses at Lebanon’s public university. Other proposals
touched on trade, development, hospitals, roads, schools and, of
course, the Balaa Dam in Tannourine.
Yet virtually no substantial new agreements were signed. The Iranian
ambassador, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, reacted like a spurned suitor,
grumbling publicly that Lebanon needed to do more to carry out
agreements. The embassy here rejected a request for an interview, but
Iran’s state-run Press TV quoted Mr. Roknabadi as saying, “The
Iranian nation offers its achievements and progress to the oppressed
and Muslim nations of the region.”
Therein lies the rub. Syria, run by a nominally Shiite Muslim sect,
fostered its alliance with Iran as a counterweight to Sunni Muslim
powers like Saudi Arabia. The alliance was built more on confronting
the West and its allies than on any sectarian sympathies.
In Lebanon, a nation of various religious sects, many interpret
Iran’s reference to “Muslim” as solely “Shiite Muslim.” Hezbollah
insists that that is not the case and that the money comes with no
strings attached and is for the good for all Lebanese.
“The Iranians say, ‘If you want factories, I am ready, if you want
some electricity, I am ready,’ and they do not ask for any price in
return,” said Hassan Jishi, the general manager of Waad, the
organization that rebuilt the southern suburbs. (The name
means “promise” in Arabic, referring to Mr. Nasrallah’s promise to
reconstruct the area.) It cost $400 million to build apartments and
stores for about 20,000 people, Mr. Jishi said.
Half the money came from Iran, Mr. Nasrallah said in his speech,
adding that he had telephoned the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah
Ali Khamenei, to ask for reconstruction aid even before the August
2006 cease-fire with Israel. Both Ayatollah Khamenei and President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded generously, he said.
“We owe a special thanks to the leaders of the Islamic republic of
Iran, to the government, to the people, because without Iranian
funding, we could not even have begun to achieve what we did,” Mr.
In the southern suburbs, what was once a jumble of haphazard
construction is now neat rows of handsome tangerine-and-rose-colored
apartment blocks with elevators, generators and parking. But anarchic
power lines still crisscross the streets like so many cobwebs,
because the electricity supply remains hit-or-miss. Lebanon suffers
from a chronic shortage of electricity, generating just 1,500
megawatts against a peak summer demand of 2,500 megawatts.
Iran’s project to finance the dam appeared to be aimed at addressing
such problems — and winning hearts and minds by meeting a need the
government has so far failed to address.
Here in Tannourine, the sound of rushing water ricochets off the high
valley walls, riven with caves where the first Christian monks sought
sanctuary from prosecution centuries ago. Restaurants built over the
Joze River draw a weekend crowd from Beirut, 45 miles south, for long
lunches of meze and shish kebab washed down with smooth, locally made
arrack. Local springs also feed one of Lebanon’s most popular bottled-
water brands, called Tannourine.
The idea of a dam proved popular among the 35,000 inhabitants because
it would both generate electricity and provide for irrigation, said
its mayor, Mounir Torbay.
The dam was included in Lebanon’s 2012 budget and the contract was
awarded to a Lebanese company, the mayor said. Then it got embroiled
in local politics.
A prominent Christian politician trying to one-up his rivals asked
the Islamic republic for $40 million for the dam, and Iran agreed
last December, provided an Iranian company built it. Most of the
solidly Christian area’s population was horrified by the prospect
that the Iranians would move in, said Mr. Torbay, most likely
bringing their mosques, their wives and perhaps even their missiles.
Many suspect that some company with links to the Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps will get the contract.
“We want the dam badly, but we don’t want an Iranian company to build
it,” the mayor said. “They are from a different religion, a different
There are still about 70 churches in Tannourine, with 22 dedicated to
the Virgin Mary, and most Christians feel that their culture and
tradition face enough of a threat already throughout the Middle East,
“One of the dreams of Iran is to gain a foothold over the mountains,”
the mayor said. “It is important for them to oversee the
Mediterranean. So Lebanon is a full part of their strategy.”
The fate of the project remains uncertain. The cabinet is inclined to
accept the $40 million, not least because most foreign aid has dried
up since a Hezbollah-dominated alliance formed the government last
As to Iranian plans to prevail in Lebanon, many Lebanese point out
that the Christians and Sunni Muslims have failed at that endeavor
“I think the Iranian project to control Lebanon is a candidate for
failure, too,” said Sejaan M. Azzi, vice president of the Lebanese
Forces, a political party and once a Christian militia. “We don’t
have confidence in Iranian economic aid; we consider it part of a
political, security, military project.” Hwaida Saad contributed
reporting. (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 05/25/12)
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