[A-List] Iran Builds a Presence in Lebanon
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Fri Aug 17 17:44:21 MDT 2007
>From the Los Angeles Times
Iran builds a presence in Lebanon
Tehran has taken a key role helping reconstruct war-hit areas, in
contrast to what Lebanese see as Beirut's indifference
By Raed Rafei and Borzou Daragahi
Special to The Times
August 17, 2007
BINT JBEIL, LEBANON —
Along the roadways of southern Lebanon, thousands of banners festoon
street lights and utility poles. They feature a distinctive symbol, a
red inscription from the center of Iran's flag, protectively swathing
Lebanon's iconic green cedar.
The emblem belongs to the Iranian reconstruction organization. Its
presence delivers a message that is not lost on critics of Iran's role
here, nor supporters who have watched cratered roads filled in,
damaged school walls resurrected and life return to some semblance of
normalcy over the last year.
Other countries "have reconstructed everything: the schools, the
buildings, the roads," said Nazim Khanafer, a 47-year-old building
contractor in Ainata, a town ruined in the war between Israel and the
militant group Hezbollah a year ago. It is now being rebuilt with the
help of Iran and other countries. "They have paid money to the people,
unlike the government."
The reconstruction of Lebanon after last summer's war was meant to
strengthen the U.S.-backed Lebanese government of Prime Minister Fouad
Siniora. Hundreds of millions of dollars poured in from U.S.-friendly
Persian Gulf countries
Instead, as government officials acknowledge, the rebuilding effort in
badly damaged areas of southern Lebanon, south Beirut and the Bekaa
Valley has mostly highlighted the government's weakness.
At stake is control over volatile pieces of real estate, some abutting
Israel, that have been key battlegrounds over the last three decades
in the proxy wars waged by Iran, Syria and the United States and its
Though the state is distributing most of the donated funds, Iran and
Qatar have decided to directly contribute and supervise their aid.
Over the last year, these two countries have spent millions of dollars
on flashy projects without the government's imprimatur.
In the eyes of many Lebanese, their government has had little role in
rebuilding the country.
"There is a feeling that the state is absent from the reconstruction
process," said Ali Amine, who has been closely following the
rebuilding efforts in the south as an editor for Al Balad, a daily
newspaper. "The government has shown no real interest in what happens
in the south."
Hezbollah Secretary-General Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, speaking Tuesday
via giant screens placed in a south Beirut square, declared that his
Iranian-backed group had spent $381 million to provide temporary
shelter for 25,000 families, restore infrastructure and buildings and
revive the economy. He accused the government of slowing down payments
of $1 billion it had collected from international donors.
Government officials contend that they're not given the credit they
deserve for the reconstruction effort. They've been busy fighting
armed Islamic radicals in northern Lebanon while locked in a political
battle with their opponents that all but shut down the government.
A Siniora aide acknowledged that his government had been struggling to
gain an edge in the public relations battle over the reconstruction,
but must overcome the red tape and bureaucracy inherent to state-run
"Some people are very good at pointing to the shortcomings of the
government and highlighting their own accomplishments," Mohammed
Shattah, a spokesman for Siniora, said of Iran's reconstruction
efforts. "These are attempts to weaken the state by weakening its
image. We think they're counterproductive and do not help the state to
Iran is a Shiite Muslim majority country that is run by hard-line
anti-U.S. clerics and politicians. It sees itself as the patron of
Shiites around the world, including those in Lebanon, who make up a
third to half of the population.
The government in Tehran strongly supported Hezbollah in the war with
Israel last year, and pledged to help Lebanon recover from the damage.
Whenever the Lebanese government, nonprofit organizations or other
donor nations have faltered, Iran and its ally Hezbollah, which
dominates most of the municipal governments of the south, have quickly
swooped in, residents and officials say.
For example, when Qatar slowed reconstruction efforts several months
ago because of corruption worries, Iran quickly upped its
"The Qataris were saying a lot of the money was being wasted," said
Ibrahim Said, a business owner in Bint Jbeil, a border town that was
crushed by Israeli airstrikes during the closing days of the war.
"Four months ago, there was a sudden halt in reconstruction, and the
Iranians said, 'If you don't want to do it, we'll step in.' "
The head of Iran's reconstruction effort says his country has set no
spending limit for Lebanon.
"Contrary to other countries, we did not decide on a fixed budget for
the reconstruction of Lebanon," Hussam Khoshnevis said. "The Islamic
Republic decided to pay as much as is needed on the ground."
Much of Iran's financial support is invisible. It is channeled through
Hezbollah's charity organizations. Immediately following the war, the
Shiite militant group paid as much as $12,000 for each destroyed home
or apartment. A large portion of this money was believed to have
originated in Iran.
In heavily damaged Hrat Hreik, an enclave in a southern suburb of
Beirut called Dahiyeh, contractors have removed rubble, repaved roads,
rebuilt sidewalks and restored electricity and running water.
"We've done this in cooperation with the United Nations Development
Program and other donor groups, especially Iran represented through
the municipality of Tehran," said Samir Dakkash, head of the local
government in Hrat Hreik. "Money was directly paid to contractors, so
we don't know how much Iranians spent."
Work to rebuild apartment buildings damaged by Israeli airstrikes has
also started. Often, even when pro-American donor countries and the
Siniora government provide the money, Hezbollah shares the credit. Its
reconstruction arm recently persuaded 70% of those who got grants from
the government to funnel their cash into a project that will restore
or rebuild 198 buildings under the Hezbollah banner. Elaborate plans
include green spaces, parking lots and trees imported from Africa.
According to its own accounting, Iran has spent $155 million in
Lebanon, about $25 million more than the U.S. government has sent
through the U.S. Agency for International Development for
reconstruction. Iran says it has rebuilt at least 149 schools, 48
mosques and churches, 10 health clinics, 64 electricity projects and
19 bridges. It continues work on nearly 100 other building and
infrastructure projects. It has completed work on 504 roadways, and
has 76 underway.
The Lebanese government, Khoshnevis says, simply isn't up to the job.
"The Lebanese state is slow in implementing projects, and when they do
the job, the cost is very high," he said.
Beirut has little choice but to accept Tehran's help. It is neither
powerful enough to prevent ministries, local officials and individuals
from doing business with Iran, nor rich enough to refuse the Islamic
In an e-mail response to questions, Siniora's office said that it
couldn't confirm that Iran had done everything it said it had in
Lebanon, because of what it said was the Tehran regime's lack of
Most residents and officials said they understood why it was hard to
rebuild quickly. But a year after the war, hard-hit areas such as
downtown Bint Jbeil remain little more than piles of rubble and
twisted steel. Even those who doubt the ultimate intention of donors
such as Iran are reluctant to criticize anyone helping to meet such
"We thank anyone who wants to help us," said Tony Hamra, a 37-year-old
grocery store operator in the southern town of Marjayoun, which is
inhabited mostly by Christians. "But we aren't thankful if they want
to do something that's not ultimately good for our country."
daragahi at latimes.com
Rafei is a special correspondent and Daragahi a Times staff writer.
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