The target is Lebanon

Sunday 19/06/2016

The explosion that targeted Blom Bank in Beirut was clearly trying to send a message. That message is: Lebanon could be next. After all, what would happen to Lebanon without its vital banking sector?

It is clear who was responsible for this explosion, whatever official denials have been issued. This latest explosion cannot be isolated from previous attempts to target Lebanon and its vital institutions, from the assassination of prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 to the series of attacks that followed. This cannot be isolated from the 2006 Lebanon war between Hezbollah and Israel and Hezbollah’s 2008 takeover of the capital. All of this sought, in one way or another, to destroy the Lebanese state as we know it.

Speaking at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Centre (BIEL) one day after the explosion, former prime minister and Future Movement leader Saad Hariri urged “solidarity” with Lebanon’s banking sector. Hariri has always sought to serve Lebanon to the best of his ability, even when this has cost him personally, such as when he made a landmark visit to Damascus as part of his duties as prime minister in 2009, even though he suspected that Syrian President Bashar Assad was involved in his father’s assassination.

What Hariri did not say was that nothing happens by accident in Lebanon and that attacks against the country’s banking sector are part of a wider campaign orchestrated by Hezbollah that seeks to turn the country into an Iranian protectorate.

One year after his Damascus visit, Hariri went to Tehran where, according to sources, the Iranians made three demands, all of which Hariri refused. First, Tehran reportedly asked for Iranian citizens to be exempt from visa restrictions to visit Lebanon. Second, Tehran wanted a joint Iranian-Lebanese military defence pact — something that clearly failed to take Lebanon’s ties to the Arab world into account. Third, and most important, Iran wanted access to Lebanon’s banking sector, allowing Tehran to bypass the international sanctions that have been imposed against it.

Despite the Iran nuclear deal and ensuing sanctions relief, Tehran is still subject to some economic sanctions, particularly relating to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Additional international sanctions have been placed on Hezbollah, including the United States’ Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, which sanctions any foreign institution that facilitates transactions on behalf of Lebanon or its agents, effectively cutting Hezbollah off from Lebanon’s banking system.

Lebanon cannot control the sanctions that have been issued against Hezbollah, whether by regional and international bodies designating it a “terrorist” organisation or the laws that seek to restrict any organisation from dealing with it. To preserve itself and its banking system, Lebanon has no choice but to impose this. It is the government’s duty to do this to protect the country as a whole.

Iran has been investing in Hezbollah for years and, through this, has been able to change the nature of the Shia community in Lebanon, including seeking to silence the Shia voices of dissent who oppose Iran, Hezbollah and the concept of velayat-e faqih.

As can be seen from recent municipal elections, Hezbollah is seeking to portray itself as the protector of Lebanon’s Shia community but the Blom Bank explosion shows that Hezbollah does not care about Lebanon. For Hezbollah, Lebanon is nothing more than a card in Iran’s deck.

It does not care that Blom Bank represents a unique Lebanese, Syrian and Arab success story. It does not matter that Blom Bank, like all other banks in the country, had no choice but to impose these international sanctions on it. No respectable bank can flout international law in the way that Hezbollah seems to want.

The Blom Bank explosion exposes the depths of the crisis that Hezbollah is facing. Does the group not realise that if Lebanon’s banks flout these international laws, this would be the end of Lebanon? Or does it simply not have the room to manoeuvre and do what serves Lebanon’s national interest and ensure the country’s survival when this conflicts with its own plans?

The banking sector is one of the few things that are working in Lebanon. A Hezbollah attack on the banking sector represents an attack on Lebanon itself.