The recent visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is complicating the administration’s efforts to get American aid to the Lebanese military back on track, according to Capitol Hill sources.
Two members of Congress put a hold on the $100 million annually allocated to the Lebanese army over concerns that American assistance and equipment could make their way to Hizbullah. The hold comes amidst signs of possible cooperation between the Islamic militant group and some elements of the Lebanese Armed Forces.
The administration, which requested the aid for the LAF but can’t disburse the money until the congressional holds are lifted, sees aid to the LAF as a major way of bolstering those elements in Lebanon which are opposed to Hizbullah.
But the visit by the president of Iran, a major bankroller for Hizbullah, to the south of Lebanon this week has reinforced the dangers of sending American aid to the fragmented and fragile country, sources said.
“Ahmadinejad’s visit is certainly not helpful,” said one congressional aide. “We certainly don’t want to see Ahmadinejad welcomed to Lebanon. He has a destabilizing influence wherever he goes.”
“It doesn’t help the cause,” said another Capitol Hill source supporting the resumption of aid to the LAF. “The politics of it make it harder after you have Ahmadinejad attending a rally with Hizbullah on the border.”
The US State Department continued on Thursday to criticize the Ahmadinejad visit but favor Lebanese aid, with an official saying, “Iran’s policies toward the region serve only to deliberately increase tension and violence and work against peace.” The official said that US aid to Lebanon helps counter those dynamics.
“We believe that US assistance to Lebanon contributes to improving regional stability,” the official commented. “US support to Lebanon is part of an international commitment to help strengthen the institutions of the Lebanese state and the ability of the Lebanese government to exercise its sovereignty and authority over all of its territory.”
The LAF funding was put on hold this summer by House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Howard Berman (D-California) and Nita Lowey (DNew York), chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations.
Lowey spokesman Matt Dennis said Thursday that there had been no change
in the status of her hold following the Ahmadinejad visit Wednesday, and
indicated that Lebanese press reports that she had taken further action
in the wake of his trip were incorrect.
“The hold still stands and we’re talking to the administration about it,” he said.
A Berman aide said that it was “premature” for the congressman to make any policy decision about the visit.
“We really need to spend some time analyzing what went on there,” he said.
Berman’s office also successfully shepherded two additional measures
bolstering Israeli security through Congress as part of a larger act
dealing with cooperation on security issues. The act was recently signed
into law by US President Barack Obama.
The first of Berman’s measures classifies Israel as a major non-NATO
ally entitled to an expedited process – 15 days down from the standard
30 – for congressional review of defense exports. The move puts Israel
on par with Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and other key non-NATO
The second provision extends the Pentagon’s ability to store surplus
weapons in Israel for a reserve stockpile which could be transferred to
Israel in the case of an emergency.