Saudis Remit $3 Billion to Lebanese President Aoun to Win Him Away from Tehran

Gen. Michel Aoun, whose election as Lebanese president in November ended a two-year political deadlock in Beirut, arrived in Riyadh on Monday Jan. 9 for a two-day visit, accompanied by a bevy of ministers for foreign affairs, education, finance and information.
Two days later, he touched down in Qatar, following which he made the rounds of other oil emirates.
Iran’s rulers must have clenched their fists in fury over the new Lebanese president’s itinerary. They had expected him to show some gratitude after they instructed the Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah to swing his vote behind Aoun’s election as president last November.
Instead they found him running into the arms of the enemy.
It took the Islamic Republic five years to displace Saudi Arabia’s political and economic influence in Beirut, sideline the Sunni leader Saad Hariri, and boost their Shiite protégé, Hizballah, as the preeminent military force in Lebanon.
In the years of fighting in Syria alongside Bashar Assad’s army, Hizballah polished its combat skills and won top-line military hardware, superior to the armaments of the Syrian and Iraqi armies. As the foremost external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Hizballah was able to push Lebanon’s national army down into a position of subservience.
Confident in Hizballah’s uncontested power and assured that the Christian Michel Aoun was its man, Tehran endorsed his election as president of Lebanon, certain that Saudi Arabia finally got the boot.
However, the Iranians soon discovered their mistake. Just weeks after Aoun was firmly installed in the presidential palace for the next five years, he started singing a different tune.
“We have normal relations with Iran, which shouldn’t be a barrier in the face of normal relations with the Arab world,” he said to the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Wednesday, after flying out of Riyadh.
The Lebanese president’s message was clear: His administration would pursue a balanced policy between Shiite Iran and Sunni Arab governments, including Tehran’s foremost rival, Saudi Arabia.
But more aggravation was yet in store for Tehran.
President Aoun and King Salman agreed to hold talks on restoring the $3-biliion military aid package, a Lebanese official said, “opening a new page in relations.”
“The blockage is lifted,” said an exultant member of the Lebanese presidential delegation.
He was referring to the lifting of the halt ordered for the $3-billion aid program for Lebanon, which Riyadh imposed eleven months ago in protest against the pro-Iranian Hizballah’s “stranglehold” on Lebanon.
When Iran’s rulers got wind of the Lebanese president’s approaching deal with the Saudis, a leading Iranian lawmaker, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, announced that his government was ready to send military aid to the Lebanese army “if this was authorized by the Lebanese government.”
But Tehran’s reaction came too late to hold back Aoun’s deal for the Saudis to fund a new arms deal for the Lebanese army. He could no longer be prevented from consorting with Riyadh with a view to throwing off the Iranian-Hizballah grip on his country.
Riyadh and the Emirates, wary as ever, are holding Aoun to the test of trustworthiness before they fork out petrodollars. They want to be absolutely sure he really has changed his Iranian spots. For now, the Saudis informed Aoun that the $3 billion would not be paid directly to Beirut but deposited in Paris. Riyadh and its Gulf allies had decided to buy arms for Lebanon in France. But the timeline depended on President Aoun making the right choices on his political orientation – and sticking to them.

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