BEIRUT — The leader of the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group said Thursday that an Iranian fuel tanker will sail toward Lebanon “within hours,” warning Israel and the United States not to intercept it.
The delivery organized by Lebanon-based Hezbollah, would be an apparent violation of U.S. sanctions imposed on Tehran after former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled his country out of a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers three years ago.
Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech that the tanker, carrying diesel fuel, will be followed by others to help ease Lebanon’s crippling fuel shortage that has paralyzed the country for weeks.
Nasrallah did not say how Lebanon will pay for the fuel but in a previous speech he said Tehran could be paid in Lebanese pounds. The currency has lost more than 90% of its value since the country's economic crisis began in October 2019.
“I would like to say that at the moment the tanker sails — within hours — and moves in the sea, it will be considered in Lebanese territory,” Nasrallah said. He said the West was imposing an undeclared siege on Lebanon, causing the current crisis.
Hezbollah and its allies accuse the U.S. and some Arab gulf nations of punishing Lebanon because of Hezbollah's military activities in other countries, including Syria and Iraq.
“I tell the Americans and the Israelis that this is Lebanese territory,” Nasrallah said about the tanker, without elaborating on what his group will do if it is intercepted.
Neighboring Syria has blamed Israel for mysterious attacks that have targeted oil tankers heading from Iran to Syria this past year.
For weeks, Lebanese have been waiting in long lines at petrol stations to fill their car tanks. Diesel shortages amid severe power cuts have shut down thousands of private generators, leading to shortages of bread. Some hospitals have warned that patients could die because of the diesel shortage.
The shortages are blamed on smuggling, hoarding and the cash-strapped government’s inability to secure deliveries of imported fuel.
Lebanon has for decades suffered electricity cuts, partly because of widespread corruption and mismanagement. The Mediterranean nation of 6 million — including 1 million Syrian refugees — is near bankruptcy.
The situation deteriorated dramatically last week after the central bank decided to end subsidies for fuel products. The decision will likely lead to a hike in the prices of almost all commodities in Lebanon.
Nasrallah said his group does not aim to “defy anyone,” by arranging the fuel shipment from Iran, but added that “we cannot stand idle amid the humiliation of our people whether in front of bakeries, hospitals, gas stations and darkness at night.”
The move is likely to anger Hezbollah’s opponents at home, who have warned that such a move could end up putting Lebanon under American sanctions.