In early April, Hayya Bina, a Lebanese NGO that works to cultivate moderate Shiite voices in opposition to Hezbollah, received a letter from the International Republican Institute, which is funded by the U.S. State Department of State, announcing that it would be cutting Hayya Bina’s funding. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that critics consider the move to be part of Obama’s decision to placate Iran, by tacitly supporting Hezbollah—the Iranian-backed Shia Islamist group—in the context of the nuclear arms deal that is being brokered with the Islamic Republic. The United States officially classifies Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
“Due to a recent shift in Department of State priorities in Lebanon,” the letter reads, “NEA/AC [Near East Office of Assistance Coordination] requests that all activities intended foster an independent moderate Shia voice would be ceased immediately and indefinitely.”
The letter was addressed to Lokman Slim, director of Hayya Bina, who unsurprisingly found the situation deeply alarming. From the NGO’s point of view, the decision to cut funding reflects Obama’s desire for closer relations with Iran, which would strengthen Hezbollah’s pernicious influence.
“We see clearly that US policy in Lebanon is based on the idea of not upsetting Hezbollah,” Slim told NOW. “Whatever they can do not to upset Hezbollah, they do it.”
“It sends a message not just to us but to all the Shia who are receiving funds from the [US] embassy, who are cooperating with [Hezbollah’s political opponents] March 14, or outspoken in their own capacity, or expressing an alternative vision for the future of this country,” Inga Schei, Hayya Bina’s program director told NOW. “It sends a horrible message to all of these people.”
Firas Maksad, the director of Global Policy Advisors, a political consulting firm that focuses on the Middle East, told WSJ that the decision shows “poor political judgement” because, “coming on the heels of an expected deal with Iran, it is bound to generate much speculation about possible ulterior motives.”
This development could be potentially be seen as Obama’s desire to cozy up to Iran, which goes beyond the need to keep the waters calm in the midst of the arms deal: Both Washington and Tehran have a common enemy in the Islamic State whose militants are fighting in Iraq and Syria. The WSJ reports that the U.S has conducted airstrikes against the militants in these areas, but not against Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad’s “Iran-backed regime.”
However, the State Department flatly rejects the speculation. WSJ reports:
State Department officials denied pulling U.S. support for the development of alternative Shiite voices in Lebanon, saying the program wasn’t succeeding in its objectives. They said the administration still funds other programs run by Hayya Bina, including one that teaches English to Lebanese Shiite women.
But Schei doesn’t buy it. Hayya Bina’s director told NOW that the International Republic Institute, the State Department’s financier,
…did not raise such concerns with Hayya Bina at any time throughout the implementation of the grant. In addition to the letter provided by IRI on April 10, IRI emphasized that the reasons for halting funding were related to policy, and not the integrity of our work.
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