BEIRUT: Iran’s new foreign minister Thursday wrapped up daylong talks with top Lebanese officials by declaring that Tehran was ready to help Lebanon overcome its dire economic crisis, including the building of two power plants to resolve the country’ chronic electricity problem.
Hossein Amir-Abdollahian arrived in Beirut Wednesday night on his first visit to Lebanon since he was appointed foreign minister following the election of hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president in August. He flew in from Moscow as part of a regional tour that will also take him to Syria.
Abdollahian met in the morning with President Michel Aoun before holding talks later with Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib centering on expanding bilateral relations, developments in the region, Tehran’s stalled negotiations with Western powers over its nuclear program, and ongoing talks to improve ties with regional rival Saudi Arabia.
The Iranian foreign minister said Tehran would be willing to reconstruct Beirut’s destroyed port and build two electric power plants in Lebanon within 18 months to end the severe power rationing in the crises-hit country.
“Iran is ready to offer all aspects of support for Lebanon to help it overcome the difficult stage through which it is currently passing. Iranian companies are ready within 18 months to construct two electric energy production plants with a 1,000 MW capacity in Beirut and the south,” Abdollahian told a joint news conference with Bou Habib at the Lebanese Foreign Ministry.
He said he had agreed with Bou Habib on reconvening the joint economic committee between the two countries, adding that the “file of tourism and economic relations is still open between the two sides.”
Lebanese leaders told Abdollahian that they fully supported Iran’s rapprochement bid with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, saying this would reflect positively on the region’s stability, as well as on Lebanon, which is grappling with a series of crises, including an unprecedented financial downturn that has propelled more than 70 percent of Lebanon’s 6 million population into poverty, amid severe food, fuel and medicine shortages as well as chronic power cuts that have paralyzed normal life in the country. The crisis has sent the Lebanese pound crashing and losing more than 90 percent of its value since late 2019.
“Lebanon supports efforts exerted by the Islamic Republic of Iran to boost rapprochement between it and the region’s states, particularly relations with Arab states through the ongoing dialogue for this purpose,” Aoun told the Iranian minister, the state-run National News Agency reported. “Such a dialogue might reconcile viewpoints toward conflicting issues,” he added.
Aoun voiced appreciation of Iran’s solidarity with Lebanon in facing its crises and the aid it extended following last year’s deadly Beirut Port explosion.
Abdollahian conveyed the Iranian president’s greetings to Aoun and renewed his country’s firm support for Lebanon. “The Iranian government is ready to offer all support in the fields Lebanon needs, especially in the difficult economic circumstances through which it is passing,” he said.
The Iranian minister briefed Aoun on Iran’s position toward regional and international developments, the negotiations Tehran is holding with a number of Arab and foreign countries and the proposals presented to improve and develop these relations, in addition to negotiations with the US over Iran’s nuclear program.
Mikati said he fully supported Iran’s attempts to improve its strained ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, stressing that a rapprochement between the two sides would bolster the region’s security and benefit Lebanon.
“The best service that could be offered to the region in general, and to Lebanon in particular, in this critical stage is for the dialogue meetings and negotiations between Arab neighbors and Iran to lead to a complete agreement on various issues. An understanding on these issues will contribute to laying down the pillars of security, progress and stability and this will cast its positive shadow and benefits on Lebanon and the Lebanese,” Mikati told the Iranian foreign minister at the Grand Serail, according to a statement released by the PM’s media office.
Mikati emphasized that Lebanon welcomed “any effort by brotherly and friendly states and the international community to help it in preserving the logic of the state and its constitutional institutions and its role in protecting and strengthening its legitimate security and military forces.”
He said he welcomed in the name of the Lebanese government the “positive atmosphere” that prevailed in the rounds of dialogue between Iran and Saudi Arabia that were hosted by Iraq. “Meetings and dialogue among the Arab and Muslim neighboring states are the fate of the peoples of this region, which aspires to live in peace and brotherhood,” Mikati said.
He stressed the need to benefit from the “honest intentions” displayed by the talking parties with a view to “turning all pages of dispute and creating a climate of confidence and assurances.”
Speaking to reporters after a meeting with Berri, Abdollahian said: “There was a mutual agreement about the need to strengthen bilateral ties in various ways.” He said the talks covered the importance of Hezbollah’s armed forces to deter Israel, and regional issues.
“I would like to assure you that the Islamic Republic of Iran will always stand alongside Lebanon and assist it in overcoming the various problems it is going through,” Abdollahian said.
In addition to holding talks with Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hasan Nasrallah later Thursday, the Iranian minister was expected to meet with representatives of various Palestinian factions at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
Without elaborating, Abdollahian said Iran and Saudi Arabia have gone a "good distance" in their talks to improve ties.
Iran and Saudi Arabia, the leading Shiite and Sunni powers in the Middle East, have been locked in a fierce power struggle in the volatile region for years, backing opposing sides fighting proxy wars in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. They severed diplomatic ties in 2016.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan confirmed Sunday that his government had held its first round of direct talks with Iran's new government last month, part of a process begun earlier this year to reduce tensions. Three rounds of Saudi-Iranian talks were held in Iraq in the months before Raisi took office in August. Prince Faisal said the latest round had taken place on Sept. 21 but did not say where.
Iraqi sources said last month that officials from both countries had met recently in Baghdad.
US ally Saudi Arabia and Washington's arch-foe Iran are at odds over several regional issues, including the wars in Yemen and Syria.
Saudi Arabia intervened in the Yemen war on behalf of the internationally recognized government in 2015, shortly after the Iran-backed Huthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa. The rebels have repeatedly targeted the kingdom in cross-border attacks.
On the eve of Abdollahian’s visit, dozens of protesters gathered outside the Foreign Ministry to condemn the visit on what they perceive as growing Iranian influence in Lebanon. They carried placards reading: “Iran out -- 1559.” This was a reference to UN Security Council Resolution 1559 which calls for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon and the dismantling of all militias, including the armed wing of Hezbollah.
Hezbollah’s opponents have condemned the Iran-backed party’s shipment of Iranian fuel into Lebanon via the Syrian port of Baniyas and through illegal border crossings. Hezbollah officials have hailed the deliveries as a victory against US sanctions on Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, long labeled by Washington a “terrorist” organization.
Mikati has previously criticized Hezbollah, describing the Iranian fuel shipment as a violation of Lebanese sovereignty.
Meanwhile, a special envoy of French President Emmanuel Macron, Pierre Duquesne, met Thursday with Mikati as part of his talks with Lebanese officials to press for the government’s reform measures and the planned negotiations with the International Monetary Fund on a bailout package.
The French envoy stressed the need to speed up the launch of negotiations with the IMF and reach an agreement before the end of the year. He also emphasized the need to begin implementing reforms and unifying the Lebanon’s position during the negotiations with the IMF, said a statement released by Mikati’s media office.
Duquesne, who has met with a number of ministers, had visited Beirut several times in the past to prod Lebanese leaders to quickly enact reforms recommended by the CEDRE conference hosted by France in 2018. He is charged with following up on the implementation of these reforms, seen crucial for unlocking $11 billion in grants and soft loans promised by donors to the crises-hit country.