Within a few weeks, Hezbollah's position clearly evolved. On February 25, its number two, Sheikh Naïm Kassem, was still categorical, saying "we will not accept to submit to imperialist instruments ... We do not accept to yield to the IMF to solve the crisis." Kassem, however, acknowledged that his party was not opposed to consultations taking place between the government and a delegation from the international organization at that time.
On March 13, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah was much more pragmatic. Iran has asked the IMF for emergency funding to help it fight the coronavirus outbreak and it has become clear that the Lebanese government of Hassan Diab could not expect any help from Arab countries or others, without going through the world body. In addition, the financial noose is tightening around Hezbollah, which has been suffering from US sanctions and now from the coronavirus crisis that has practically isolated Lebanon. While he announced that he no longer opposes IMF intervention, Nasrallah reiterated that he rejects any condition which would undermine "national sovereignty" or " lead to an explosion in the country," such as a VAT drastic increase.
In his televised speech on Monday, the Hezbollah leader was less clear. "We are not in principle against Lebanon seeking assistance from any party, except from the enemies of Lebanon," he said. "What is unacceptable is to submit to the IMF with our hands and feet tied."
Nasrallah said the government will engage in negotiations with the IMF on the basis of its economic recovery plan. He said he supported the plan which could be "discussed and amended," adding that "the government is not going to deliver the country to the IMF (...), we will see what are the conditions and if the country can bear them."
According to Kassem Kassir, an analyst close to Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian party "is showing utmost flexibility" in these difficult times. "The party is being pragmatic but as long as it does not affect its strategic choices," Kassir said, noting that in Islamic jurisprudence "necessity sometimes allows recourse to what is prohibited."
The Issue of the Crossing Points
According to political sources, ministers close to Hezbollah and the Amal Movement have also affirmed at a cabinet meeting last Thursday, during which the economic recovery plan was adopted and the decision to ask for assistance from the IMF was taken, that they do not oppose intervention by the international organization on condition "it does not infringe on Lebanon's sovereignty."
That is where the shoe pinches. How to define which conditions are acceptable or not? The IMF, whose largest financial contributor is the United States, does not generally impose political conditions but it will obviously demand absolute state control over tax revenues, starting with the ports, airport and border crossing points.
US assistant secretary for Near East affairs, David Schenker, told Emirati newspaper The National that he expected rigorous conditions to be set by international institutions in implementing the reform plan, requiring commitment across the political spectrum in Lebanon.
"Hezbollah is not known for its support for reforms. This is an organization that funds its activities through illicit finance, corruption..," Mr Schenker said. "Reform at the ports that collects revenues is not going to be appreciated by everyone in Lebanon."
A source close to Hezbollah told L'Orient Le Jour that the Shiite party has made clear to Prime Minister Hassan Diab that it "does not oppose seeking assistance from IMF provided that it does not impose, for example, political measures such as delimitation of borders (with Israel) or dramatic increases in taxes or prices which could fuel social discontent." The source explained that in the event of IFM intervention, "Hezbollah will decide its position on a case-by-case basis," noting for example the party's opposition to the privatization of the electricity sector as a way to secure room for maneuvers. "Most of the crossing points with Syria are currently closed," he said, emphasizing that Hezbollah "in any case is not engaged in smuggling.. It uses one or two (border) passages for his combatants fighting in Syria and for its weapons and the state knows that perfectly."
Last month, an Israeli drone targeted a vehicle carrying forces from Hezbollah in Syria near the Lebanese border. No one was hurt. The attack took place in Jdeitet Yabous inside Syria, very near the Lebanese border crossing point of Masnaa- officially closed since March 15 to contain the spread of coronavirus. One of the routes, used by Hezbollah to transport men and equipment to Syria where the party is fighting alongside the regime, passes near the Masnaa crossing and arrives at Jdeidet Yabous, according to local sources.
The source close to Hezbollah affirmed that the party is not linked to any trafficking via the port or airport. But would Hezbollah be willing to no longer enjoy access to Beirut international Airport while his cash flows are drying up? Just last week, and according to the airport official daily report about aircraft movements, a private plane arrived from Tehran, with 99 people on board ... and lots of cash money, well-informed sources said.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 5th of May)
Hezbollah has softened its position and clearly accepted aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the only available option to help Lebanon get out of its acute economic crisis. Does this mean that the way is now clear for an intervention by this organization? It is still too early to confirm, especially that the Shiite party maintains the vagueness by indicating that it will refuse IMF...