Can the United States Help Lebanon Keep the Lights On?
Lebanon, a critical U.S. partner in the Middle East, remains in the dark as its citizens live with only two to four hours of electricity a day. The country faces one of the worst economic crises in its history. Earlier this year, the United States assisted in brokering two agreements to export natural gas and excess electricity from Egypt and Jordan to support Lebanon’s ailing energy sector.
Implementation of these agreements has since stalled as the electricity and gas would need to travel through Syria, potentially violating U.S. sanctions. The Biden administration must exempt these deals from sanctions in order to do the following: reaffirm American commitment to the U.S.-Lebanon partnership, restore critical services, and prevent further growth of Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon.
Mismanagement of Lebanon’s financial sector led to its economic meltdown beginning in 2019. The financial crisis has affected every part of society. The lack of electricity has exacerbated Lebanon’s cholera outbreak, increased economic disparity, and disrupted Lebanon’s healthcare sector. Because Lebanon borders both Israel and Syria – strategic U.S. interests – it is of significant concern to the United States. For this reason, the United States has provided over $5.5 billion in foreign assistance to Lebanon, mainly focused on military and economic needs.
The U.S.-brokered energy agreements will provide a much-needed safety net for Lebanon’s electricity sector. Once implemented, they will increase Lebanon’s capacity by eight to ten hours a day. However, the deals face two major stumbling blocks: meeting World Bank funding requirements, and guaranteed U.S. exemption from sanctions.
While funding is dependent on economic and political reform in Lebanon, the United States has yet to provide assurances that Egypt and Jordan would be exempt from Caesar sanctions. Passed in 2019 with bipartisan support, these sanctions were meant to punish Syria’s Assad regime for its continued human rights abuses. Unintentionally, the sanctions have made implementation of these energy agreements difficult, as both require transit through Syria to reach Lebanon. This situation is partly problematic because Syria is entitled to a share of the energy traveling through its territory, causing disagreement in Washington. Regardless of the Assad regime’s minimal benefit, it is in the U.S. interest to empower an important U.S. partner in the Middle East.
According to the State Department, “The United States plays an indispensable role as a force for good in Lebanon.” Approval of these deals would support the perceived American role in a country where only 19 percent of the population views Biden’s Middle East policy favorably. Approval would reaffirm the U.S. commitment to improving Lebanon’s stability and maintaining a strong partnership.
Hezbollah plays a significant role in providing social services and brokering deals between Lebanon and Iran. In a September visit to Tehran, Iranian officials promised 600,000 tons of fuel to the visiting Lebanese delegation to relieve Lebanon’s dilapidated energy sector. This offer improves perceptions of Iran and bolsters support for Hezbollah within Lebanon. An exemption from Caesar sanctions has the potential to bring Lebanon back into the fold with U.S. partners in the region, such as Egypt and Jordan while reducing the potential of Iranian pressure and influence.
Critical services, such as water purification and healthcare facilities, have also been affected by these electricity shortages. Lebanon now faces a severe water crisis and a widespread cholera outbreak, attributed in part to a lack of clean water. If energy becomes more accessible, these facilities will operate properly and curb concerns of contaminated water.
In their joint letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Senator James Risch (R-ID) and Representative Michael McCaul (R-TX) argue that the energy deal sets a negative precedent for the enforcement of Caesar sanctions. They argue that the United States will appear unwilling to enforce these sanctions. Additionally, they say it provides a framework for circumventing sanctions by involving the World Bank. However, the U.S. government has the authority to enforce these sanctions and is the granting authority of sanctions waivers. This prevents other governments from circumventing sanctions without U.S. oversight.
The letter also cites corruption within the Lebanese government as a concern for the efficacy of energy aid. The World Bank requires significant economic and governmental reform before funding for the deal is released, and Lebanon has already begun reforms. The Lebanese government passed an agreement to restructure the electricity sector, including the creation of an electricity regulatory authority this year.
Now is the time for the United States to expedite the transportation of much-needed energy to Lebanon. Life in Lebanon needs to return to a semblance of normality. Approval of these two energy agreements will reaffirm the U.S.-Lebanon partnership, restore critical services, and stem further Iranian influence in Lebanon. Rather than leave our partner in (quite literally) darkness, the United States must help bring Lebanon back into the light.