Middle East

Hezbollah heartlands recover with Iran's help

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Media captionHow Iran is funding infrastructure projects in Lebanon

In the years since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia movement's strongholds have recovered from the widespread destruction they suffered - in large part down to major investment from its closest ally, Iran.

The assistance has helped consolidate the relationship, but while Iran's role has drawn praise from Lebanese Shia, others are suspicious of its motives, as Carine Torbey reports from Beirut.

A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) on the impact of international sanctions on Iran found no indication that the sanctions had affected Iran's regional role.

And the report's principal author says there is no evidence of any financial support provided to Hezbollah. "There isn't a single line in the budget that confirms any aid or financial support to Hezbollah", Ali Vaez contends.

But in one specific area, this support is clear and tangible: reconstruction and development projects.

Seven years after the Israeli airstrikes on al-Dahiyeh, the southern suburb of Beirut, the area is almost unrecognisable.

Modern buildings have risen from the ruins and some new structures have been added to the area, a stronghold of Hezbollah.

Iran's money is key to this. "If it weren't for Iran, we wouldn't have returned to our home", says Farah Malak, a resident of the area.

Image caption Modern buildings have risen from the ruins created by the 2006 war

The reconstruction of al-Dahiyeh cost $400m, according to Hasan Jechi, the director of "Waed" ("Pledge"), the project set up after the 2006 war by Hezbollah to manage the reconstruction of the area.

Half of this amount was paid for by Iran, as was conceded by the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.

"We consider the reconstruction projects as instrumental to our support to the resistance against Israel in Lebanon," says Ghadanfar Rokon Abadi, Iran's ambassador to Lebanon.

This support is also clearly felt in southern Lebanon, also a mainly Shia area, which is bordered by Israel.

There too Iran has heavily contributed to the reconstruction of the area after the 2006 war.

To highlight its projects and its influence, it has chosen a strategic spot in a border village, Maroun el Rass, to establish "Iran's park".

The green family and fun area overlooks Israel. It's divided into different sections, each named after an Iranian region. But the park is also planted with posters of Iranian leaders, both civilians and clerics.

One imposing picture at the entrance of the park is of Husam Khos Navis, the late director of the Iranian reconstruction commission.

He was killed last February on his way to Beirut from Damascus. It was later disclosed that he was also a leading member of the influential Iranian Revolutionary Guards and his real name was Hasan Shateri.

The incident raised many suspicions about the real role he had played in Lebanon.

Reaching out

But Iran insists its support to Lebanon is not driven by any sectarian vision. Mr Abadi says an essential principle of the Islamic Republic of Iran is to always stand by the oppressed and those suffering injustice.

Image caption Iran and Hezbollah are united in their hostility towards Israel

"Iran stands by all regardless of their sect or religion or their political affiliations. That's why we don't support the development and reconstruction projects in one area or another. We help everyone in Lebanon, everywhere."

The message doesn't resonate in all parts of the country.

An Iranian donation to build a proposed dam in Tannourine, a Christian town in northern Lebanon, has provoked outrage among some local residents.

The donation goes back to 2011 and it was approved by the Lebanese cabinet, but so far the project hasn't started yet and some are doubtful it will ever go ahead with the Iranian money.

The minister of energy at the time, Gebran Basile, secured the Iranian donation. He's a member of the Free Patriotic Movement, a prominent Christian political party allied to Hezbollah.

"The donation was on condition that an Iranian company carries out the work. If they come here, they'll establish their own community, which means that they will establish a colony in this purely Christian area and we don't want this to happen", says Mounir Tarabay, the mayor of Tannourine.

He claims that Iran's ultimate aim is to "invade the Christian mountains through peaceful means, if possible, because they want Lebanon as a substitute to Syria".

But not everybody in this idyllic area agrees. Some residents suggest local petty politics behind the fierce opposition to Iran's gift.

They also point out to the fact that other big projects in the area were sponsored by some Gulf countries without stirring a similar controversy.

"It's an illusion. They are using Iran... in their partisan conflicts. I don't think Iran has any ulterior motives in Lebanon. On the contrary, they're doing good things to the country."

Iran might be trying to win the hearts and minds of different groups of Lebanese. But with Lebanon's sectarian and political divisions, Iran knows well that it won't be received warmly everywhere.

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