WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Barack Obama on Monday discussed with Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri the threat posed by illegal arms smuggled into Lebanon amid Israeli warnings to its neighbor.
Regional tensions have been mounting over claims the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which is based in southern Lebanon just across the border from Israel, is stockpiling sophisticated weaponry in anticipation of war.
Analysts said before Hariri arrived that he was expected to seek US assurances during his five-day trip that the Obama administration will use its influence with Israel to ease the mounting tensions.
Obama stressed “the threat posed by the transfer of weapons into Lebanon in violation” of UN resolutions, the White House said in a statement issued after the talks which did not feature the usual joint press appearance.
The White House also appeared to pressure Hariri to back growing moves to impose new sanctions on Iran over its refusal to rein in its suspect nuclear program.
“The president stressed the importance of efforts to ensure Iran complies with its international nonproliferation obligations,” the White House statement said.
Lebanon, which has two members from the pro-Iranian Hezbollah as part of the government, is perceived to be one of the countries on the 15-member UN Security Council opposed to new sanctions. The others are Turkey and Brazil.
Obama added Washington would continue efforts “to support and strengthen Lebanese institutions such as the Lebanese Armed Forces and the Internal Security Forces.”
Hezbollah, which fought a devastating war with Israel in 2006 and is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organization, is the only faction that refused to disarm following the 1975-1990 civil war.
In recent months Israel has repeatedly accused Syria of arming Hezbollah with Scud missiles and other weaponry, and warned that in the event of a new conflict it will consider Lebanon, rather than just Hezbollah, as its enemy.
The threats have sparked war jitters and prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity to ease tensions in the region.
Hariri urged continued US support “to help Lebanon’s defense capability and to help our security institutions exercise control over all Lebanese territories,” he said in a statement.
He added that Beirut believed stability in Lebanon, which has seen decades of political upheaval and civil unrest, “depends ultimately on the attainment of a just peaceful settlement in the region.”
“The clock is ticking. And it is ticking against us. Against all those who believe in a just peace,” Hariri said.
“Failure will nurture more extremism and give birth to new forms of violence. This poses great dangers to everyone in the Middle East and to the world at large.”
The Arab-Israeli peace process was also the focus in Hariri’s talks with top US officials ahead of the White House meeting.
“We discussed the key role of Lebanon in the long-term effort to build a lasting, comprehensive peace in the Middle East,” said Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs.
“Realizing this goal will help the region move forward and enjoy greater prosperity and stability. The importance of achieving this is clear to everyone,” Feltman told reporters.
The United States has focused its regional diplomacy on reviving direct Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations while at the same time pressing for a resumption of Israel’s negotiations with both Syria and Lebanon.
A senior State Department official also told reporters on condition of anonymity that Feltman and Hariri talked about “the importance of the upcoming vote on the resolution” for new UN Security Council sanctions against Iran.
The UN force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) has some 13,000 troops from various countries stationed in southern Lebanon.
The force, set up in 1978 to monitor the border between Israel and southern Lebanon, was considerably beefed up in the wake of the devastating 2006 war.