February 25, 2019 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1443

Dispute In Lebanon Over Iran's Offer To Equip Lebanese Army

February 25, 2019 | By N. Mozes*
Iran, Lebanon | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1443


Having established its status and presence in Syria, it appears that Iran, which has a great deal of influence in Lebanon's political system and daily life via Hizbullah, now seeks to further strengthen its direct control of the country by infiltrating its institutions and its vital areas, first and foremost the military and also energy and health. This is aimed at, among other things, opening up the Lebanese market for Iranian goods, which have a very limited market because of the U.S. sanctions on Iran.[1]

On February 6, about a week after the announcement of the new Lebanese government, in which the pro-Syria and pro-Iran March 8 camp holds a majority of seats, and on the eve of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif's visit to the country, Hizbullah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah proposed to the Lebanese people that they accept aid from Iran, calling Iran "a great and true friend who wants nothing from us." Nasrallah suggested importing weapons from Iran that, he said, would "make the Lebanese Army the strongest in the region," and pointed out Iran's willingness to supply Lebanon with medicines and help solve its electricity problems as well.[2] Nasrallah's statement appears to have been aimed at priming Lebanese public opinion for Zarif's visit, two days later. Indeed, Zarif himself announced, upon arriving in Beirut, that his country was "willing to meet Lebanon's military and economic needs."[3]

In meetings with Lebanese officials, headed by President Michel 'Aoun and Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri, Zarif reiterated the offer of aid to Lebanon. In an attempt to dispel Lebanese apprehensions regarding the ramifications of accepting aid from Iran because of the sanctions on it, Zarif stressed: "No international law prevents Iran and Lebanon from cooperating with each other."[4] He also proposed that Iran and Lebanon work together in arrangements similar to those that Iran has arrived at with a number of European countries, and with Russia, Turkey, and China, that would allow Lebanon to evade punishment for violating the sanctions.[5] Likewise, in an attempt to underline how Lebanon would benefit economically from increasing its trade with Iran, Zarif proposed that transactions would be in Lebanese pounds – that is, Lebanon would not have to use foreign currency in its dealings with Iran.[6]

This is not the first time Iran has offered Lebanon military and economic aid. In 2014, it was offered and rejected, apparently because of a U.S. veto. This time, Iran's task will be easier because the March 8 camp, headed by Hizbullah, has strengthened, and the March 14 camp, headed by Prime Minister Al-Hariri, which is close to Saudi Arabia and opposes Hizbullah, is weakened. The new government, established January 30, 2019, comprises 30 ministers, 18 of them belonging to the March 8 camp. Also, the new defense minister, Elias Bou Saab of the Free Patriotic Movement, which is headed by president 'Aoun who is considered close to Hizbullah, has not said anything to rule out accepting Iran's proposal.  

More than anything else, what happens with Iran's proposal depends on how much pressure the U.S. and European countries bring to bear on Lebanon. In recent months, a struggle for control of Lebanon is becoming evident, with Iran on one side and the U.S. and its Arab allies on the other. The U.S.  had already identified the risk of a Lebanese government with a pro-Iran majority, and before its establishment several American officials visited Lebanon to warn Lebanese officials not to appoint Hizbullah politicians to top ministerial posts such as health minister, and also to warn about the ramifications of rapprochement with Iran. It also may be no coincidence that, days after Zarif's Lebanon visit, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut announced that the U.S. had delivered to Lebanon precision-guided Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System (APKWS) rockets for the A-29 Super Tucano aircraft, worth $16 million.[7] Furthermore, in her meeting with Defense Minister Bou Saab, the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, Elizabeth Richard, stressed that the U.S. is the strongest supporter of the Lebanese Army and would continue to support it.[8]

In addition, the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar reported that the U.S. was pressuring the Arab countries to offer aid to Lebanon, in an attempt to strengthen the March 14 camp and prevent Lebanon from needing Iranian aid.[9] It is not inconceivable that these pressures led to the Lebanon visit by Nizar Al-Aloula, an advisor in the office of the Saudi king, only one day after as Zarif's visit. In Lebanon, Al-Aloula expressed his hope that the 20 Lebanese-Saudi agreements already signed would soon be implemented.[10] Also during his visit, Saudi Arabia announced that it was lifting its travel ban to Lebanon.[11]

Unsurprisingly, Nasrallah's and Zarif's proposals that Lebanon accept military aid from Iran sparked a heated debate between the March 8 camp and the March 14 camp. Hizbullah supporters argued that Lebanon's economic circumstances made it impossible for it to reject Iran's offer, particularly when practically nothing was being asked of it in return, and that this was a test of Lebanon's independence of the West. They stressed that Iran was willing to equip the Lebanese Army with weapons that could deter Israel and that the U.S. was keeping the Lebanese Army from obtaining.

The March 14 camp, on the other hand, argued that accepting Iran's proposal could bring Lebanon into conflict with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and thus put at risk the tremendous amount of aid it receives from the U.S. – aid so large in scale that Iran would not be able to compensate Lebanon for its loss, particularly in light of the harsh sanctions on it. They also expressed doubts about Iran's ability to follow through on its proposals, even if Lebanon did accept them. Furthermore, they expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the air defense systems that Iran proposed giving Lebanon, and asked why Iran was not using them itself to thwart Israeli attacks on Iranian forces in Syria.

It should be noted that in this debate, both anti- and pro-Hizbullah elements speculated that Nasrallah and Iran had made the offer to equip the Lebanese Army because they were certain it would be rejected – thus providing a pretext for Hizbullah to maintain its weapons and making it appear to be the only element capable of defending Lebanon.

This report will review reactions in Lebanon to Iran's and Hizbullah's proposals. 

Iran's Allies In Lebanon: Lebanon Must Demonstrate Its Independence By Accepting Iran's Offer

As stated, following the establishment of the government, which is dominated by the pro-Hizbullah March 8 camp, there were increasing calls by pro-Iran elements in Lebanon, in particular by Hizbullah, to accept Iran's offer and thereby alleviate Lebanon's economic and security problems.

Nasrallah: I Am Willing To Obtain From Iran Everything The Lebanese Army Needs

In his February 6 speech on the occasion of the anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution, Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah urged the Lebanese people to realize that the regional balance of power has changed:  Iran and the resistance axis have grown stronger and the U.S. and Israel have considerably weakened. He therefore called on Lebanon to accept the aid of Iran, "a great and true friend who wants nothing from us," and added: "I wonder why we ignore this friend, who can assist in [the areas of] defense, development and science, and support us in international organizations? Why do we turn our back to it while extending our necks [in surrender] to others [i.e., the U.S.] whose attitude towards us is known to all? The main issue that the [new Lebanese] government will have to address is that of electricity. Iran is willing to solve this problem [for us] within a year and at a very low cost. As for medicines, why do we keep importing them? Why do we remain dependent on others? In the period of [former Lebanese president Najib] Mikati, an Iranian delegation came and offered to build tunnels that would solve Lebanon's traffic problems for 50 years. Did the Lebanese government dare to accept these Iranian offers? What is Lebanon afraid of?"[12] Nasrallah noted that, if Iran supplied air defense systems to Hizbullah, some in Lebanon would complain: "If Hizbullah had [such air defenses], and it were to down an Israeli air force plane attacking Lebanon... wouldn't many people start complaining that Hizbullah was dragging Lebanon into a war?" He therefore offered to use his good relations with Iran to obtain these systems for the Lebanese Army instead: "As a friend of Iran, I am willing to bring Lebanon air defense [systems] from Iran... and whatever [else] the Lebanese Army needs to become the strongest army in the region." To watch a video of Nasrallah's statements, click below:

In an attempt to garner public support in Lebanon for the Iranian offer, Hizbullah officials noted the considerable aid it has extended to Hizbullah and which, they said, has enabled it to defend Lebanon. On the eve of Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif's visit, Nawwaf Al-Moussawi, a member of Hizbullah's faction in the Lebanese parliament, said that Iran's support for the organization since 1982 has enabled it "to build a significant missile arsenal. Our brothers in Iran improved the accuracy of [our] ballistic missiles, and enabled us to ward off the specter of war [that was threatening] our country. This was thanks to the power we gained with the help of our friends in Iran and Syria."[13]

Nasrallah with Iranian FM Zarif (image:, February 11, 2019)

Hizbullah Officials: Lebanon Must Not Pass Up An Opportunity To Resolve Its Economic Difficulties

Lebanon's Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Hizbullah Executive Committee member Mahmoud Qamati, said following his meeting with Zarif that "Lebanon is independent in its policy and decisions, [and welcomes] any country that wants to help it and support it... If Iran will be the first to offer Lebanon aid, we will thank it, especially since its aid has no conditions or price attached to it. We appreciate that there are international pressures [to avoid accepting Iranian aid]. But [those who are pressuring Lebanon], what do they want? Do they want Lebanon to remain backward? If they want to help Lebanon, let them propose solutions [themselves]. This government is serious, so far, in its desire to solve Lebanon's problems... first and foremost the problem of electricity." He assessed that the Lebanese government would take a decision that would suit Lebanon's interests.[14]

'Ali Da'moush, deputy-chair of Hizbullah's Executive Committee, called on the Lebanese government "not to miss the opportunity to receive Iranian support and cooperation – an opportunity that was missed by previous governments – and [thereby] prove that it is an independent and sovereign decision-maker, that it does not let the American veto stop it...  and that it heeds the interests of Lebanon and the Lebanese..." [15]

Lebanese Defense Minister: No Reason To Refuse Iranian And Russian Cooperation

Hizbullah's political allies likewise welcomed the Iranian offer, most prominently Defense Minister Elias Bou Saab of the Free Patriotic Movement. In his inauguration ceremony at the Ministry, he said that he was not against accepting military aid from Russia and Iran if this would benefit the Lebanese Army: "We welcome [the help] of any country that is willing to give us the weapons we need. We need the Russians [to continue providing us] with Russian missiles and mortars... We welcome [the aid] of anyone who is willing to help the Lebanese Army with no strings attached." As for Iranian aid, he said: "We [in the Lebanese military] stay away from politics... The interest of the Lebanese Army is above any other consideration... The issue will be discussed in the Army's headquarters and we will accept [the offer] if we need to. Yes, we are willing to receive aid from anyone." While stressing that Lebanon wished to maintain its relations with the U.S., which grants it the largest amount of aid, Bou Saab added: "In the recent years advanced and high-quality weapons have become available, [such as] smart missiles and laser-guided missiles... I repeat once again that the interest of the Lebanese Army is our first [priority]... and that will be the basis for any decision we take."[16]

Following his meeting with Zarif, Bou Saab said that Iran understands Lebanon's position and is not pressuring it. He reiterated that the interest of the Army is the top priority, and added that "there is nothing to preclude cooperation" with Iran. He made similar remarks regarding Russia.[17]

Former Lebanese MP Emile Emile Lahoud, the son of former president Emile Lahoud, contrasted Zarif's visit and the Iranian offers, which "benefit Lebanon economically and militarily," with the visit of Saudi royal advisor Nizar Al-Aloula, which he said was "degrading" and useless, since it resulted only in the lifting of the Saudi travel ban to Lebanon but not in any direct economic aid, as Lebanon had hoped.[18]

March 8 Sources: We Must Refuse U.S. Aid; If The Army Does Not Accept Iran's Offer Of Air Defense Systems, Hizbullah Will Take Them

 Sources in the March 8 camp called to refuse the U.S. military aid to Lebanon, especially since, according to them, the U.S. provides Lebanon only with primitive and obsolete weapons, and keeps it from obtaining advanced air defense systems, in order to preserve Israel's air superiority. "The Lebanese people," said the sources, "must oppose Lebanon's ties with such countries [i.e., the U.S. and Europe], which aid the Israeli enemy that attacks Lebanon... Does the Lebanese people [really] want to tighten its relations with the U.S. and the Western countries that conspire against Lebanon and sever its ties with countries that help us unconditionally and without interfering in the decisions of the Lebanese government?" As for the danger that the U.S. would cease its aid to Lebanon in response to its tightening relations with Iran, the sources said that they would be pleased to see this happen.[19]

The proponents of accepting the Iranian proposal also stated that, if the Lebanese government declined Iran's offer of air defense systems, Hizbullah would consider itself justified in acquiring these systems for itself, and then would present itself as the only one capable of defending Lebanon. Nasrallah, they said, actually expects the government to decline the Iranian offer, and relayed this offer only "to fulfill his obligation and avoid being accused of usurping the right to make decisions about war and peace." They added: "If the relevant authorities lack the courage to accept the offer that was expressed by Nasrallah and personally conveyed by Zarif, this will provide the resistance with further justification to reinforce its defensive arsenal... Nasrallah will even be entitled to choose the right time to put an end to the ongoing Israeli violations... and nobody will be able to blame him after turning down an offer to arm the [Lebanese] Army with weapons that can stop these violations..."[20]

It should be noted, however, that some in the March 8 camp had reservations about accepting the Iranian offer. MP Chamel Roukoz of the Strong Lebanon bloc, which is affiliated with the March 8 camp, said prior to Zarif's visit that, while the offer should be regarded in a positive light, there is need for national consensus and  a discussion of Lebanon's defense strategy. About the electricity crisis, he said that Lebanon could solve it without external intervention, by means of its gas resources.[21]

March 14 Camp: Accepting Iran's Offer Will Bring Us Into Conflict With U.S. And Arab World

Unsurprisingly, Hizbullah's rivals, the March 14 camp, did not welcome the proposals of Iran and its allies. Members of this camp argued that accepting Iranian aid would put Lebanon in violation of international agreements, and warned about the consequences of tightening relations with Iran, which is under strict sanctions. In addition, they doubted that Iran could actually follow through on its offer, considering own economic difficulties, and said that these were empty promises made for propaganda purposes only. They also questioned the effectiveness of Iran's air defense systems, given that Israel is able to attack the Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in Syria undisturbed, and even urged Hizbullah to return the weapons it has already received from Iran, or else turn them over to the Lebanese Army. 

In his meeting with Zarif, Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'd Al-Hariri politely declined the latter's offer, saying that Lebanon "respects its commitments and agreements with the Arab world and the international community."[22] Several days later, in a ceremony commemorating the assassination of his father, Rafiq Al-Hariri, he took a firmer position, saying: "Lebanon is not part of any axis and is not a theatre for the regional arms race. It is an independent Arab state with a constitution, laws, institutions and commitments towards the Arab [world] and the international [community], a state that is committed to the policy of disassociation from conflicts.[23] Any other position is not binding for Lebanon or the Lebanese."[24]

Al-Hariri's meeting with Zarif (image:, February 11, 2019)

Sa'd Al-Hariri's advisor 'Amar Khouri said that, in principle, there was no reason not to consider the Iranian offer, but presented several conditions for accepting it, including that Lebanon's sovereignty and its relations with other countries would not be compromised and that there would be no price attached –  conditions which effectively implied a rejection of the offer. Like other March 14 figures, he doubted the effectiveness of the Iranian air defense systems, saying: "If Iran has air defense capabilities, why does it not use them to defend its positions in Syria, which Israel repeatedly attacks?"[25]

March 14 Officials: Iran Must Stop Arming Hizbullah And Demand That It Return The Weapons It Has Already Received Or Else Hand Them Over To The Army

Other March 14 officials used less diplomatic language. Former Lebanese president Michel Suleiman warned that accepting Iranian arms could mean giving up the American aid, amounting to $100 million annually, and stressed that this offer could not be accepted without international approval. The only Iranian weapons Lebanon might like to receive are those already held by Hizbullah, he added.[26] He called on Hizbullah to return its weapons to Iran.[27]

Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces party, said that the Iranian weapons were unsuitable for the Lebanese Army, since most of its equipment is Western.[28] On another occasion he said: "If these air defense systems exist... why didn't [the Iranians] use them against the repeated Israeli attacks on them, especially in Syria? That is why [I believe] this offer is a lie. As for medicines, the Lebanese market is open to medicines from all over the world, but they must meet certain standards and be approved by the Ministry of Health. Of all the medicines manufactured in Iran, only two are approved, and they are [already] on the Lebanese market... They want us to violate the law and [our own] standards and flood our markets with medicines of uncertain effectiveness... If Iran wants to help Lebanon in this area it should open its market to Lebanese medicines, which meet international standards and whose effectiveness is proven."[29]

 Former deputy parliament speaker Farid Makari said that Zarif could take back the weapons "he [had already] sent to Lebanon without the Lebanese people's consent instead of urging them to accept his weapons willingly."[30]

Former minister Ashraf Rifi, also a member of the March 14 camp and a firm opponent of Hizbullah, issued a scathing statement in which he accused Iran of pursuing a "destructive" policy in Lebanon and the region that has "transformed the reality [of the region's countries] into hell and their future into a mirage under the guise of the so-called resistance plan." He wondered why, in the 2006 war between Hizbullah and Israel, Iran had stood by and had not fired missiles into Israel, but only "verbal missiles." He called Zarif's visit in Beirut "a provocation that we reject."[31] 

Elie Mahfoud, head of the Change Movement, said he was confident that the Lebanese government would not succumb to Hizbullah's pressure to accept the Iranian proposal. He tweeted: "No matter how powerful Hizbullah is and how much control it has, and how effectively it manages to unite parliamentary blocs in order to lend legitimacy to its weapons, it will not manage to persuade the Lebanese government to import Iranian weapons and medicines. There are many reasons for this, mainly Lebanon's stance vis-à-vis its historic allies, as well as its identity and its regional role."[32]

Lebanese Columnists: This Is An Empty Offer That Must Not Be Accepted

The Lebanese media identified with the March 14 camp published articles opposing the offer and calling to refuse it. 'Ali Al-'Amin, a Shi'ite journalist who opposes Hizbullah, wrote on the website, of which he is the editor: "There is no doubt that Lebanon is ill, but the treatment prescribed by Zarif will not cure it... This Iranian minister and his government know that Lebanon's illness... is [the conduct of] the Lebanese state itself. That is why Zarif and the Iranian politicians who came before him... act to weaken the Lebanese state [still further] and invest in supporting and funding everything that weakens it... Minister [Zarif], Lebanon's illness obliges you first of all to refrain from offering to equip the Lebanese Army." Al-Amin added that Lebanon did not need Iranian weapons, especially since they have not proved their effectiveness against Israel in Syria. The cure Lebanon needs, he said, "is simpler than the arms deals and the medicines offered by Iran, namely support for the homeland's decisions. As for the weapons that you [Zarif] think will defend Lebanon against any aggression – you need only to instruct the Hizbullah leadership, which declares day and night its religious and political loyalty to your leader [Khamenei], to hand over all the weapons and all the precise and imprecise missiles it possesses to the Lebanese Army, and thereby declare, loud and clear, that Hizbullah must be as loyal to the Lebanese state as you and your leader are to Iran. Neither more nor less."[33]

Lebanese journalist Randa Taqi Al-Din, a columnist for the Dubai-based daily Al-Hayat, wrote: "If we look at the details, we will find that Iran is unable [to provide] the aid, and that Lebanon cannot receive military aid from a country that is under strict American sanctions. This is especially [true] considering that, since 2007, the U.S. has granted Lebanon $4.8 billion in aid: $1.7 billion in military aid and $3.1 billion humanitarian and civilian aid. Last year alone, the U.S. gave Lebanon $750 million... Zarif's visit was intended to show the world and the Iranian [public] that the regime of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps still has a long arm and can intervene and sow destruction in the Middle East, despite the American sanctions..." Al-Din warned the Lebanese leadership "to beware any Iranian attempt to exploit Lebanon's relative stability in order to evade the American sanctions, either by manufacturing Iranian products in Lebanon and elsewhere, or by other means that will worsen Lebanon's economic situation."[34]

Rozana Bu Munsif, a columnist for the daily Al-Nahar, wrote that the Iranian offer may yield a positive outcome in prompting the Arabs to support Lebanon so as to prevent it from turning to Iran. She added that the U.S. has already urged several Arab states to support Lebanon politically and economically.[35]


* N. Mozes is a research fellow at MEMRI.



[1] It should be noted that in addition to Iran, Russia too has, in the past year, worked hard to establish its influence in Lebanon, seeking, inter alia, to advance a Russia-Lebanon military cooperation agreement that has yet to be signed because of U.S. objections. Likewise, in January 2019, Lebanon signed a contract with the Russian government company Roseneft for operating the petroleum port at Tripoli, Lebanon, and last year seven Russian cultural centers were built in the country. Al-Mudun (Lebanon), January 28, 2019.

[2], February 6, 2019.

[3] Fars news agency (Iran), February 10, 2019.

[4], February 11, 2019.

[5] A reference to the financial instruments aimed at allowing Iran and the countries that trade with it to circumvent the U.S. sanctions, such as oil for goods deals, or oil for food and medicines, for example the European INSTEX transactions channel, or transactions in local currency for oil, as with China and India.

[6] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 12, 2019.

[7] , February 13, 2019.

[8], February 20, 2019.

[9] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 13, 2013.

[10] Al-Hayat (Dubai), February 13, 2019.

[11] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 13, 2019.

[12], February 6, 2019.

[13], February 9, 2019.

[14], February 10, 2019.

[15], February 11, 2019.

[16] Al-Mustaqbal (Lebanon), February 4, 2019.

[17], February 16, 2019.

[18], February 15, 2019.

[19] Al-Diyar (Lebanon), February 9, 2019.

[20], February 13, 2019.

[21], February 8, 2019.

[22], February 11, 2019.

[23] In August 2011, as the Syrian crisis came up for debate in the UN Security Council, Lebanon, which was a Security Council member at the time and whose government, headed by Najib Mikati, was dominated by supporters of the Syrian regime, had to take an official position on the crisis. The Security Council ultimately issued a Presidential Statement condemning Syria, approved by 14 of its 15 members; Lebanon was the only member-state that did not support the statement, choosing instead to "dissociate itself" from the consensus. In this manner, Lebanon avoided criticizing Syria while refraining from thwarting the condemnation. Since then, the Lebanese governments have consistently defined their policy as one of "dissociation" from the Syrian crisis and from other conflicts in the region, including the one between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This policy allows Lebanon to avoid taking a definite stance on these conflicts and to bridge the very significant gap between the pro-Saudi camp in Lebanon, headed by Sa'd Al-Hariri, and the pro-Iranian camp, headed by Hizbullah. See MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 842, Syria's Role In Lebanon's Conflagration, May 31, 2012.

[24], February 14, 2019.

[25] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 11, 2019.

[26], February 14, 2019.

[27], February 10, 2019.

[28] Al-Jadid TV (Lebanon), February 10, 2019.

[29], February 18, 2019.

[30], February 10, 2019.

[31], February 10, 2019.

[32], February 10, 2019.

[33], February 11, 2019.

[34] Al-Hayat (Dubai), February 12, 2019.

[35] Al-Nahar (Lebanon), February 13, 2019.

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