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US envoys losing Lebanon--visit by visit?

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 Frnaklin Lamb

Beirut

It might require a semanticist with Noam Chomsky's  erudition to explain to some of  us more obtuse  the meanings, context, and policy nuances of two similar and repeated phases heard  in Lebanon earlier this month by two well listened to guests . During over-lapping visits of top US and Iranian officials to Lebanon; one warned and threatened Lebanon, while the second praised Lebanon's "achievements".  Admittedly, divining these Lebanese "achievements" is no mean task.

Making the front page lead paragraph in a number of Beirut and Middle East dailies last Friday were nearly simultaneous summations by the two visitors as they articulated their country's policy toward Lebanon.

 One visitor was Jeffrey Feltman, the long serving US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, who for all intents and purposes in still US Ambassador to Lebanon and elsewhere in the Levant.  Mr. Feltman is well known in Lebanon and many here actually view him as a too frequent visitor, who rather like the Li'l Abner comic strip character Joe Btfsplk, personifies the World's worst jinx who always travels with a dark cloud over his head. Assistant Secretary Feltman repeated his seven year mantra during a meeting with Prime Minister Najib Mikati, of warnings for the Lebanese government and citizens to break with Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.

 On the arguably more positive side, as he had so many times in the past, Assistant Secretary Feltman renewed the United States' commitment to "a stable, sovereign and independent Lebanon".   And he repeated these words to the President of the Chamber of Deputies Speaker Nabih Berri, Progressive Socialist Party Leader MP Walid Jumblatt, Lebanese Forces Party President Samir Geagea, Maronite Bishop of Beirut Boulous Matar, and March 14 politicians.  All of whom presumably hear the words in their sleep by now as all visiting US officials repeat Feltman's buzz words.

A few hours earlier, another visitor, the Iranian First Vice President, Mohammad Rida Rahimi, having arrived in Lebanon in a bid to implement agreements signed between both countries, some since 1996, pledged Iran's commitment to Lebanon's  "freedom, independence and sovereignty".

 The two gentlemen used 67% of the same key words but their meanings appear vastly different and that's why some of us, certainly this observer, could use some help from a serious student of the subject.

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Feltman told his interlocutors that he came to Lebanon to express his country's "grave concern" on a number of issues including Hezbollah and its links with Iran and Syria. He also gave instructions on next year's parliamentary elections which his team, the March 14 opposition, has threatened to boycott.  If they do, according to some analysts here, their decision will have resulted from Feltman's instructions.

The Beirut Daily, As-Safir, reported that Feltman's sole purpose was to lash out at Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah.

And he did.

Feltman repeatedly warned that "if some sides in Lebanon seek to circumvent the sanctions on Iran then the Lebanese government will face "very serious complicated problems with the international community. The "International Community" is increasingly defined as "US allies".During his meeting at the obsequious and literally genuflecting pro-Saudi MP Boutros Harb's house, whose front page photograph showed the MP bowing deeply to Feltman, threatened that "the United States is keen not to allow any exploitation of the bank secrecy in Lebanon, in order to bypass the sanctions on Iran, Hezbollah, and Syria. This enters deep into US strategy."

Feltman's threats continued as he sought to pressure businessmen in Syria and Lebanon:  "Not abiding by the US and International sanctions will have dangerous repercussions on the Lebanese banking sector."  More than once Feltman warned the Lebanese, with reference to the recent unilateral sanctions imposed on the Central Bank of Iran, not to underestimate the American capacity to monitor and trace deposits and transfers. Most Lebanese are generally aware that US Treasury officials have been swarming Lebanon the past two years in order to intimidate Lebanon's banking sector and shore up the failing US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

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Assistant Secretary Feltman, as he has done for the past seven years, repeated to his Lebanese hosts that the US would consider providing arms to the Lebanese army.   While nearly everyone in Lebanon realizes that the American Congress will veto even shoe laces for the Lebanese army without Israel's approval, Iran is ready to help.   Lebanese Defense Minister Fayez Ghosn announced this week that Iran is ready to ship weapons to the Lebanese army and that the shipments will begin as soon as Prime Ministers Najib Mikati's government finalizes its own political decision.   "The Iranian weapons are ready Ghosn told a Beirut Daily As-Safir. " Our request is there [in Iran]. What is missing is a political decision from the Cabinet to provide support for the Lebanese Army."   Mr. Feltman is working diligently to assure that the Cabinet does not give its approval.

While Feltman was busy so was Iranian First Vice-President Rahimi.   Rahimi signed three memorandums of understanding agreed upon in previous meetings.

During his meetings, the Iranian first Vice President stressed his country's "total support for Lebanon on the political, economic, and development levels."

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