The message from the US administration over the past week has been loud and clear: the menace from Iran-backed proxy Hezbollah is a spider’s web that spans the globe. At a press conference yesterday in Argentina, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took the opportunity to talk of its pernicious influence from the other side of the globe. Hezbollah might have its roots in Lebanon but its fund-raising activities stretch from Paraguay, Brazil and Venezuela to Africa. “The roots of these terror groups may be many miles away, but their branches twist around the globe — raising funds, seeking recruits, probing for our weaknesses, challenging our defences,” Mr Pompeo said.
His warning to South America came after a five-day visit from Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who met key US officials in a bid to protect his country’s fragile economy from the fallout of escalating US sanctions against Hezbollah. The message he takes back to Beirut is that Lebanon will never be free to plot a course towards a prosperous and peaceful future while its political institutions remain in thrall to an armed militia whose loyalty belongs not to the Lebanese people but to its paymasters in Tehran.
In Washington earlier this week, Mr Pompeo reiterated America’s commitment to securing “a bright future for the people of Lebanon”. He offered congratulations to Mr Hariri for his “ambitious and necessary” reforming budget which, in tackling Lebanon’s fraught economy, is poised to unlock billions of dollars in international assistance for the country.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE are among the nations that have expressed an interest in investing in Lebanon. America, meanwhile, has offered its services as a mediator in Lebanon’s longstanding maritime border dispute with Israel. If resolved, this would free Lebanon to exploit offshore oil and gas reserves that could dramatically transform its economy. But, as Mr Pompeo made clear, Hezbollah is the stumbling block impeding Lebanon’s path to progress. In March, he said the Lebanese people faced a stark choice: to “bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future.”
Yet since January, when Hezbollah was given three posts in the newly formed Lebanese cabinet following gains in last year’s elections, the prospect of Lebanon shaking off the malign influence of Iran’s proxy has seemed as remote as ever. The reality of Hezbollah’s damaging influence on Lebanese politics was emphasised the following month when the UK joined the US in abandoning the pretence that there is a distinction between the group’s military and political wings. Both are now proscribed as a single terrorist organisation.
Lebanon is at a crossroads. It both desires and needs the support of the international community if it is to set its people on course for a brighter future. Yet its parliament and many governing institutions are hopelessly infected with the virus that is Hezbollah, a pariah militant state within a state that serves another master and is doing its dirty work in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The hard work of international and domestic actors to restore the country’s economy to good health and improve the outlook for its long-suffering people will all be for nothing if Hezbollah cannot be rooted out.