By Laila Bassam and Nafisa Eltahir
BEIRUT, Aug 19 (Reuters) – A shipment of Iranian fuel oil organised by Hezbollah will set sail on Thursday for Lebanon, the Lebanese Shi’ite group said, cautioning its U.S. and Israeli foes against any moves to halt the consignment that is aimed at easing an acute fuel crisis.
Hezbollah’s opponents in Lebanon warned of the consequences of the move, with Sunni politician Saad al-Hariri saying it risked sanctions being imposed on a country whose economy has been in meltdown for nearly two years.
There was no immediate comment from the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said further shipments would follow to help the people of Lebanon.
“I say to the Americans and the Israelis that the boat that will sail within hours from Iran is Lebanese territory,” Nasrallah said, suggesting that any action to stop it would be met with a response.
“We don’t want to get into a challenge with anyone, we don’t want to get into a problem with anyone. We want to help our people,” he said.
The arrival of Iranian fuel would mark a new phase in the financial crisis which the Lebanese state and its ruling factions, including Hezbollah, have failed to tackle even as poverty soars and shortages trigger deadly violence.
The worst crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, Lebanon’s meltdown has hit a crunch point with hospitals, bakeries and other essential services being forced to shut or scale back due to power cuts and the acute scarcity of gasoline.
Nasrallah, whose group is designated a terrorist organisation by the United States, did not say when or where the shipment would dock. One possibility is in neighbouring Syria, where Reuters reported in April the group was readying fuel storage capacity as part of plans to respond to the crisis.
“God willing, this ship and others will arrive safely,” Nasrallah said in a televised address commemorating Ashura, when Shi’ites commemorate the death in battle of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein in 680.
Hezbollah, founded by Iran‘s Revolutionary Guards in 1982, has said on several occasions it was working on bringing fuel from Iran to help Lebanon, where the currency has plunged by more than 90% in less than two years.
Western donors have consistently demanded that Lebanon carry out long-delayed economic reforms to tackle the causes of the collapse – chiefly state corruption and waste – in order to access financial assistance.
Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said any action to stop the shipment would strengthen Hezbollah’s narrative that Lebanon is being subjected to a U.S. siege, while Iran extends a helping hand.
“Now the ball is in the U.S. court,” he said.
(Reporting by Nafisa Eltahir and Laila Bassam; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Jason Neely and Gareth Jones)