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Gas Pains

Recently discovered gas and oil fields could make Israel one of the world’s largest energy producers. That threatens Iran’s power, which is why its agents in Lebanon are manufacturing a border dispute.

Lee Smith
July 27, 2011
Drilling for oil in Maanit, north of Tel Aviv.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)
Drilling for oil in Maanit, north of Tel Aviv.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

Now that Israel has discovered what appear to be huge gas and oil fields off its Mediterranean coast, Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah and Beirut’s Hezbollah-allied ministers are labeling the Jewish state’s internationally recognized maritime borders as an “aggression” against Lebanon—even though it seems that the Arab country may have plenty of gas and oil off its coast, too. Lebanon’s real problem is that few investors want to take a chance spending billions of dollars exploring for energy in a country run by a terrorist organization. As a result, Hezbollah, cut off from normal sources of global capital, wants to do its best to keep investors away from Israel, too—by threatening war. And American policymakers are concerned that if Hezbollah’s newly invented sea-border dispute between Lebanon and Israel isn’t solved, the oil and gas fields will turn into an underwater Shebaa Farms—the piece of real estate that has served as Hezbollah’s casus belli since Israel’s 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon.

The Tamar field, discovered in 2009 roughly 50 miles off Haifa, is estimated to contain 9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, while the Leviathan field, discovered further west in June 2010, is double that at 18 trillion cubic feet, one of the largest offshore finds in the last decade. And yet much more important, a former Royal Dutch Shell chief scientist who’s now chief scientist for Israel Energy Initiatives “has devised an ambitious plan that would, if successful, turn Israel into one of the world’s leading oil producers,” according to an Energy Tribune report earlier this year. It turns out that the oil-shale deposits in Israel’s Shfela Basin, 30 miles southwest of Jerusalem, hold some 250 billion barrels of oil—roughly equal to Saudi Arabia’s proven reserves. In other words, Israel may well become a player in the highly competitive field of energy-producing nations, which includes Hezbollah’s patron, Iran.

Israel argues that the maritime border should begin at a 90-degree angle from the coastline, while Lebanon says that it should continue in the same direction as the land border. But if Lebanon were to insist on that principle across the board, says David Wurmser, a former consultant to Noble Energy, a Houston-based firm with a large stake in the Tamar and Leviathan fields, “it would lose a lot of its territorial water to Syria. It’s clear who’s calling the shots here.”

The twist is that even as the Lebanese government gussies up phony challenges to Israel’s maritime borders, the map it submitted to the United Nations does not actually challenge Israel’s claims to the biggest prize that the Eastern Mediterranean has ever had to offer. If Syria has its own reasons for interfering with Lebanon’s border issues, so does Iran, it seems, which is using its Lebanese asset to keep a potential industrial rival in check. That is, the dispute is not personal: It’s not about Zionism, or liberating Jerusalem. This is not ideological, but strictly about business.

Doubtless, many in the Middle East believe the ideologies to which they’ve sworn their lives. And yet that same part of the Arab world that produced Wahabbism—the Persian Gulf—is also most in favor of normalization of relations with Israel. Indeed, the Saudis themselves have reportedly cooperated with Jerusalem on security issues regarding Iran—because what really matters to Arab rulers is holding on to their rule.

The lesson here is that ideology is useful in the Middle East only insofar as it is an instrument for managing power, and even Hezbollah might not be as ideological as we assume. In addition to the cash the Party of God is given by its Iranian sponsor, it also earns plenty through its own enterprises, some of them illegal. The money is used to buy weapons for the resistance, but the other side, usually forgotten by analysts, is that Hezbollah’s arms are there to protect Hezbollah’s money. Lebanon is a very competitive place, and more often than not the highest bidder gets what he wants, regardless of ideology or other loyalties. For instance, as Hussain Abdul-Hussain, the Washington correspondent for the Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai, told me, the same smuggling networks that move weapons through the Bekaa Valley from Syria to Hezbollah are now being used to provide satellite phones to the Syrian opposition determined to topple Hezbollah’s patron, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

That’s not to say that everyone can be bought off all the time. But too often we forget that the real interests driving Middle Eastern politics are often about power and money, not ideology. Hussain notes that what might decide Assad’s fate is the Sunni merchant class of Damascus. “If the merchants start holding on to foreign currency, especially dollars, that will devalue the Syrian lira,” he told me last week. “This will make it impossible for the regime to meet the payroll for the security services who are putting down the uprising. That will mean the merchants are betting against the regime.”

By reading the border dispute as an exercise in Iranian power politics, the weirdness of the map that the Lebanese submitted to the United Nations actually starts to make sense. Iran’s interests are clear: Hold the Israelis down while also crippling the independence of the Lebanese state. If Lebanon were to develop its own natural gas fields that might encourage the country to free itself from Iranian and Syrian tutelage.

Accordingly, Iran last week signed a memorandum of understanding with Lebanon’s Hezbollah-led Cabinet to help explore for gas and oil. That’s bad for Lebanon, but it’s not so great for Iran either. Imagine a Lebanese energy sector entirely dominated by Iran; were Hezbollah to target Israeli rigs or other machinery or installations off the coast, Jerusalem would retaliate not only against Lebanon but the Iranians as well. Israel, with a booming tech sector and one of the few economies to weather the financial crisis, could handle an attack on its energy industry.

Iran, however, would be brought to its knees. The country has no economy outside of the energy sector, which is one reason why it must guard its access to vulnerable markets, like Europe. And if Israel were capable of fulfilling Europe’s energy needs for even a decade (though some estimates suggest more like 20 years), that would change Europe’s diplomatic and political position. European intellectuals can scream about Israeli checkpoints as much as they want, but no European leader whose poll numbers might someday depend on affordable energy coming from Israel will be likely to cross Jerusalem. Iran will not only have less leverage over Europe if and when Israel can develop its field, but the Islamic republic will even lose the little advantage it has over Israel.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.