Saudi Arabia and United States got 30 other nations to pledge USD 7.6 billion to shore up a shaky Lebanese government led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora under siege by Hezbollah-led Shiite population. While the overwhelming support for Lebanon, where the target for aid pledge was USD 5 billion, was heartening to Siniora, groups supporting him and Hezbollah clashed leaving scores wounded and several dead. Among many things that angers the Hezbollah Siniora is trying to set up an international tribunal that could eventually implicate Syria in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister and Syria-critic Rafik Hariri. Syria had occupied Lebanon for 30 years but was forced to withdraw its troops after Hariri’s assassination that it denies any part in. Addressing the Lebanese people, he appealed for calm but asked them to “stand together against intimidation and confront sedition for the sake of Lebanon.”
Siniora, backed by the West and their allies in West Asia, leads a tenuous majority against an Iran and Syria backed Hezbollah vocal and committed minority that has held the government to ransom. Siniora’s supporters have accused Hezbollah of trying to change the government through a policy of assassination of government representatives and a “attempting a coup by force”—a charge Hezbollah denies. Iran and Syria are accused of funding Hezbollah’s and other groups’ terror activities through a grant of USD 40 million a month—a charge that Iran and Syria deny.
The Paris pledge is meant to provide a large tranche to Siniora to rebuild towns and communities devasted by the Israel-Hezbollah war last summer. The thinking is that with this reconstruction work, Siniora would be able to show development and progress to the Lebanese population and win them over with positive developments and economic advancement away from the negative violent influence of Hezbollah. Lebanon has a huge public debt burden estimated at USD 41 billion.
Apart from the US, the country that is most interested to ensure that the influence of Iran-Syria combine does not spread is Saudi Arabia. Because it houses the most auspicious Islamic sites in Mecca and Medina, Riyadh sees itself as the most reliable spokesperson for Muslims in the world, but the truth is that it speaks for the Sunnis and not necessarily the Shia. While Riyadh has the religious, political, and economic appeal, Tehran has the emotional appeal, especially among the Shia Muslims, often portraying itself as a champion against the larger and “imperial” United States. Riyadh has pledged USD 1.1. in loans and grants and the US a USD 770 million in addition to the USD 300 million it had already pledged last September. The European Union pledged USD 522 million and France separately promised USD 650 million. The World Bank offered $1 billion in loans, grants and other aid while The European Investment Bank offered $1.2 billion and the Islamic Development Bank followed with $250 million.
The Paris donors were careful to word the package so it is not contingent on Siniora staying in power. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pointed out that there were “no conditions” and that this “package is for Lebanon” and as “a democracy” it can choose its leadership. However, since “Lebanon is also undertaking important economic reforms that are critical” to making this aid package to bring peace. Insisting that its expectations that “those reforms are going to continue” are “not at all unusual,” Rice refused to comment on whether the funding would continue even if the Hezbollah were to gain power. Hezbollah is “considered a terrorist organization by the US” and US law prohibits negotiation with, leave alone funding of, terrorist organizations.
The recent showdown was called by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah trying to force Siniora to form a new government with more powers for his party and warned that if its demands were not met, then he would unleash “effective, very important and very big” action but did not reveal what this may be. The Hezbollah has been emboldened by the lackluster performance by Israel’s invasion forces and subsequent resignation of Israel Army chief Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz and Nasrallah claims that his group had won "historic, strategic victory" against the invaders.
Alerting the world of a multi-faceted problem present in West Asia, Jordan King Abdullah II had warned of three potential concurrent civil wars—Lebanon, Palestinian Territories, and Iraq. He also warned that a failure by the US to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons would prompt his nation, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia to consider the nuclear option. While it is virtually impossible for financially fragile Egypt or Jordan to develop nuclear weapons which require extensive financial and human capital, Saudi Arabia has enough reserves to pull it off. It also signifies a message to Tehran that its nuclear program will not be viewed as an “Islamic bomb” but an Iranian one that could serious damage relations with Gulf nations. Since September last year, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman have expressed interest in developing nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes” and the US asserts that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allows all signatory nation-states to acquire such technology for civilian use.
However, the fear is that some nations may use the civilian nuclear program foot hold to develop a military program secretively and in violation of NPT; especially if Iran gets away with its nuclear program to develop weapons. Interestingly, years of Israel’s suspected nuclear arsenal had not encouraged Arab states to develop any nuclear programs and it is only the Iranian program that is bringing in fear and suspicion born out of religious disagreement that is more than a 1000 years ago.
The issue of nuclear weapons in West Asia is erroneously projected in India as a Iran vs United States standoff. However, the truth is that this is a standoff between the Sunni and Shia world. US President George Bush talked about this standoff as an impending “epic world.” India has the second largest Muslim population in the world with equivalent populations of Sunni and Shia and has to be very careful how it handles itself in this standoff. While the West has a vested interest to support the Sunni world represented by Saudi Arabia and Jordan and has a history of enmity with the Shia world represented by Iran, India has, barring Egypt, the opposite relationship. Only now, it has started to intensify relations with Riyadh and its relationship with Tehran is strained over the nuclear program and oil contract disputes.