Lebanon – land of phantom oil deals, spies and political murder

Robert Fisk on the real story behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit

Related Topics

While the West reacted with predictable horror to the Lebanese visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran – the US President Barack Obama called it "provocative" while Israel claimed that its northern neighbour was now "a hub of regional terror" – it largely failed to notice that the Iranians were busy signing a set of massive energy, oil exploration and economic agreements with Lebanon.

They included a £300m Iranian letter of credit for the Lebanese to begin financing new projects – possibly including two new power stations and a direct electricity link between the two countries via Turkey.

On the surface, it's easy to see all this as another attempt by Iran to dominate Lebanon through oil and electricity – and the Lebanese government's acceptance of the agreements as a sign of submission. Lebanon is believed to have considerable reserves of oil off the northern city of Tripoli which Iran suggested it might be able to explore – other fields may lie further south, close to Israel. Certainly, the Lebanese, who in some regions suffer eight-hour power cuts every day, are ready to allocate more than £1bn to the electrical project, with £1.5bn from the private sector and another £600m from largely western donor nations. This will come as something of a shock to the donors.

But, like everything in Lebanon, the whole fandango is more mirage than reality, as the Lebanese economist Marwan Iskander discovered when he researched his files. For the Iranians are demanding a matching guarantee of £300m from the Lebanese Central Bank – which it cannot provide without breaching UN sanctions against Iran. In fact, Iskander says, Iran wrote out a £75m pledge to Lebanon 10 years ago which the Central Bank could not guarantee – and for the same reason. The UN thus long ago put Iran out of the sub-financing business in this part of the Middle East.

And the dark spectre of Iranian oil men drilling the Mediterranean seabed 70 miles north of the Israeli border is also illusory. French and Norwegian companies have done much of the drilling in Iran; the refining has been carried out by French and Italian companies. Now the Russians and Chinese are doing the same job in Iran. The idea that Tehran would furnish cash to pay Moscow and Peking to explore reserves off Lebanon is close to fantasy.

So why on earth did the Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and the Lebanese Energy Minister Gebran Bassil sit down to sign those 17 agreements a week ago? Herein lies a tale. For it just so happens that Mr Bassil is the son-in-law of the Christian Maronite ex-general Michel Aoun whose political party long ago aligned itself with Syria and Iran. In Lebanon, its Christian supporters have thus found themselves an ally of Hizbollah and in opposition to the majority government of the Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

On the surface, this makes sense. Aoun is helping the Iranians to move into the Lebanese economy. But right now, the ex-general has a few other things on his mind. For a start, three of the team of alleged spies for Israel arrested by the Lebanese army over the past nine months have turned out to be working for Aoun's party. And this "spy ring" is supposed to have been involved in amassing data within the Lebanese communications system. Indeed, one of them was a senior official in Lebanon's largest mobile telephone network.

But the plot thickens. Hizbollah is deeply concerned that forthcoming accusations by the UN international tribunal in The Hague will finger members of the militia in the murder of Prime Minister Hariri's father Rafic on 14 February, 2005. Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, the chairman of Hizbollah, has already denounced such accusations in advance – and suggested that the Israeli spy network inserted false phone traffic into the mobile phone records of the day of the murder; in other words, the records – a key part of the tribunal's evidence – were deliberately tampered with in order to implicate Hizbollah members in the murder.

And it has to be said that immediately after Rafic Hariri's killing, the UN was quietly pointing the finger at Syria rather than its Hizbollah ally. A censored UN report originally named four Syrian figures supposedly involved in the assassination. But now – after Der Spiegel (and its Israeli informants) suggested Hizbollah men were to blame – everyone is suspecting Israel's most security-conscious enemy in the Middle East of the crime. It's not unlike the Lockerbie airliner bombing, when the Syrians were originally fingered and then – when Syria's help was needed in the coalition against Saddam following his invasion of Kuwait in 1990 – the West started blaming Libya.

And those 17 Iranian-Lebanese agreements? Just bits of paper, maybe, signed by Bassil to keep the heat off his father-in-law's embarrassment. Spies and dodgy oil deals and a five-year murder hunt. It had to happen in Lebanon.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager - Retail / FMCG / WMS Operations

£55000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Service Delivery Manager - Retail / FMCG / WM...

Recruitment Genius: Fundraising and Campaigns Officer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Fundraising and Campaigns Off...

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Appliance Service Engineer

£21000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This centre seeks an experience...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Independent journalist James Moore pictured outside Mile End underground station in east London  

From ‘coloured’ to ‘cripple’ - some words just don't belong in everyday language

James Moore
Marina Litvinenko, the widow of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, leaves the High Court after the opening of the inquiry into his death  

Laying the blame for Litvinenko’s death at Putin’s door is an orthodoxy that needs challenging

Mary Dejevsky
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness