(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
BEIRUT - Lebanon's interior minister tried on Wednesday to calm a dispute over a change in rules for entering the country, which some politicians feared reflects deepening influence of Iran and its ally Hezbollah.
The move by a state security agency allows entry for Iranians at the airport without their passports being stamped.
Caretaker Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said that the directive from General Security also applies to Gulf Arabs, and that he would hold talks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri to decide within a few days whether to cancel the measure.
Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah movement and its allies emerged from elections in May with greater sway in parliament, part of a bigger picture of Iranian clout that the United States wants to counter.
The staunchly anti-Hezbollah Lebanese Forces, a Christian party, slammed the passport directive as an attempt to help Iran send more forces to neighboring Syria or move money to Hezbollah despite US sanctions.
Tehran and Hezbollah give critical support to the Syrian military in the seven-year conflict next door.
The General Security agency, which oversees airport security, has defended its move as normal and said Iranians' entry cards would be stamped instead.
"This has political implications," Machnouk told a press conference after meeting the head of General Security. "Especially at this difficult time for Lebanon and the region, in terms of the American-Iranian confrontation and US sanctions."
He said the directive covered nationals from Iran and countries in the Gulf Cooperation Council, without spelling out whether it had included both initially.
Machnouk added that the United States, many European countries and some Arab states had suspicions about people visiting Beirut and could assume they were coming for "training or contacting organizations that are internationally rejected".