Kerry Phones to Congratulate Lebanon’s New Hezbollah-Allied, Iranian-Backed President

Patrick Goodenough | November 2, 2016 | 4:22am EDT
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Michel Aoun meets with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah on October 23, 2016. Lawmakers elected Aoun president on Monday. (Photo: Hezbollah press office)

( – Secretary of State John Kerry called Lebanon’s new Hezbollah-aligned president on Tuesday, congratulating a politician whose election has been hailed by Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, as a boost for the U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization and for the Assad regime.

“He did call President [Michel] Aoun this morning to congratulate him,” State Department spokesman John Kirby confirmed, “and to reaffirm our commitment to the future of a bilateral relationship with Lebanon and our desire to see – now that the Lebanese people have a chief executive – to see that Lebanon can move forward.”

Kirby did not say what the two discussed, although the Beirut Daily Star said Aoun urged Kerry “to keep providing Lebanon with military aid.”

U.S. taxpayers have provided around $1.4 billion to the Lebanese army and police since 2005.

In a move that ended a two-and-a-half year impasse in Lebanon’s byzantine and unpredictable political system, lawmakers on Monday voted to install Aoun, a former army chief, as the country’s president.

Although he’s a Maronite – Lebanese presidents are Christians by convention, while prime ministers are Sunni and parliamentary speakers are Shi’a – the octogenarian Aoun has for the last decade been a close political ally of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shi’ite terrorist group.

His elevation to the post of president came only after the country’s most prominent Sunni politician, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, dropped longstanding objections. Hariri is expected to become prime minister again as part of the arrangement.

The Iranian regime celebrated Aoun’s election, with Ali Akbar Velayati, a top foreign affairs advisor to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, calling it a “triumph” for Hezbollah and for Iran’s friends and allies in the region.

Velayati told the Iranian state-owned news agency Tasnim that the election would give a “major boost to the Islamic resistance” – which he characterized as comprising Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and “Palestine.”

It would also bolster the Lebanese nation’s stance against “the Zionists,” and benefit Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he added.

In a phone call to Aoun on Monday, Iranian President Hasan Rouhani expressed optimism that his election would strengthen the “resistance front” in Lebanon against two threats – terrorist groups such as those it is fighting against in Syria, and “the cupidity of the Zionist regime.”

Rouhani’s office quoted Aoun as saying in return that “Lebanon is ready to do whatever it can to confront any threats posed by terrorist groups or the Zionist regime.”

Asked Monday whether the U.S. government was concerned about Aoun’s ties with Hezbollah, Kirby said he would be judged on his actions.

“We’re mindful of the endorsement that he got from Hezbollah, which is a foreign terrorist organization – I mean, it’s not like we’re not blind [sic] to that,” he said, adding that the U.S. remains deeply concerned about Hezbollah’s activities in the region.

“But we’re going to judge the new president on the decisions he makes going forward and the actions he takes in leading this government,” Kirby added.

He said he could not predict the degree to which Hezbollah would try to use or influence the new president.

“We have proven in the past even under difficult, challenging political times in Lebanon to be able to protect our shared interests – our shared interests; not just U.S. interests, but Lebanese interests … to make better security and prosperity there.”

U.S. military funding for Lebanon has continued over the past decade despite concerns about the role of Hezbollah in consecutive governments there.

The administration argues that supporting the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) helps to secure it in its role as the protector of Lebanon’s borders and citizens.

The administration fiscal year 2017 State and Foreign Operations budget request includes $105 million in foreign military financing for the LAF, which it says will support the army’s “ability to secure the border and national territory against extremist threats.”

The LAF is widely viewed as weaker than Hezbollah, which styles itself as the country’s “resistance” against the group’s primary foe, Israel, and is also heavily involved in fighting alongside Assad regime forces in the Syrian civil war.

Hezbollah’s very existence as an armed militia is a violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, including resolution 1559 of 2004, which calls for “the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias,” and resolution 1701 of 2006, which demands “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that … there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.”

A brief official State Department statement Monday welcoming the outcome of the presidential vote did not refer to Hezbollah, but did say the U.S. looked to all parties to uphold Lebanon’s international obligations, including resolutions 1559 and 1701.

Aoun’s election bolsters the Shi’ite- and Shi’ite-aligned crescent that runs from Iran through Iraq, parts of Syria and Lebanon.

“Lebanon is part of a larger ecosystem in which Iran is gaining ground,” Firas Maksad of George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs wrote in The National Interest on Monday.

Unless politicians in Beirut see a determined American effort to check Iranian power, they are unlikely to change course. This must entail a comprehensive strategy to extract a price from Tehran for its illegitimate use of paramilitary forces throughout the region, whether in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria or Yemen.”

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