Iranian foreign minister meets top Lebanese officials

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian has met Lebanese President Michel Aoun to express Tehran’s willingness to support the cash-strapped country.

Amir-Abdollahian will also meet recently appointed Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Speaker Nabih Berri, Foreign Minister Abdallah Bou Habib and representatives from Palestinian groups on Thursday.

“I would like to announce the frank and firm position that the Islamic Republic of Iran, as it has, will always stand firmly by the side of the brotherly Lebanese republic,” Amir-Abdollahian said at Beirut airport after touching down late on Wednesday.

A small protest against the Iranian foreign minister’s visit took place in Beirut on Wednesday, with dozens of protesters railing against what they perceive as growing Iranian influence in Lebanon.

The visit comes nearly one month after Mikati returned for a third stint as prime minister at the head of Lebanon’s first full-fledged government in more than a year.

Lebanon remains mired in an economic collapse that has plunged three-quarters of the population into poverty in recent months as a crippling fuel crisis has halted much of public life, with homes and hospitals struggling to keep the lights on. One in four people now relies on food assistance from the United Nations World Food Programme.

Amir-Abdollahian said Tehran is committed to supporting Lebanon to break the “unjust siege”.

Last month, Hezbollah facilitated the import of Iranian fuel into the country via the Syrian port of Baniyas and through unofficial border crossings. The movement’s supporters have perceived the deliveries as a victory against US sanctions on Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, which the United States designates as a “terrorist” organisation.

The Iran-backed party’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has repeatedly expressed an interest in improving trade with Tehran and Beijing, who he said were willing to support Lebanon with fewer restrictions than Western countries.

Hezbollah has widened its patronage and social services networks since the financial crisis hit the country, as state institutions continue to crumble.

Prime Minister Mikati says he intends to improve ties between Lebanon and the international community, especially in the region. Ties with Saudi Arabia, an adversary of Hezbollah and Iran, are currently at an all-time low, after Riyadh implemented a ban on importing Lebanese produce last April.

The international community has urged Lebanon to reform its battered economy by ending rampant corruption and wasteful spending, restructuring its debt and dysfunctional electricity sector, and increasing transparency mechanisms, in order to unlock economic aid.

Lebanon has resumed technical talks with the International Monetary Fund, hoping to resume negotiations for a bailout programme.

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