US undersecretary of state for political affairs David Hale warned Thursday that Lebanese politicians who continue to block reforms could face punitive actions by Washington and its allies.
Hale did not provide details on the nature of the potential actions and did not name individuals, but appeared to refer to reports that the US and its allies may impose sanctions on Lebanese politicians in order to force them to end a monthslong political deadlock and start badly needed reforms to fight corruption.
The government of Hassan Diab resigned last August, following a massive explosion at Beirut’s port that killed 211 people, injured more than 6,000 and damaged entire neighborhoods in the capital.
Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has failed to form a new government since he was named for the post in October. Hariri has been insisting on forming a cabinet of experts whose main job will be to get Lebanon out of its paralyzing economic crisis.
Other groups, including Hezbollah, insist on a mixed cabinet of politicians and experts.
“Those who continue to obstruct progress on the reform agenda jeopardize their relationship with the United States and our partners and open themselves up to punitive actions,” Hale said after meeting President Michel Aoun Thursday morning.
“Today there’s been very little progress but it’s not too late,” Hale said, adding that Washington has long called for Lebanon’s leaders to show sufficient flexibility to form a government that “is willing and capable to reversing the collapse that is underway.”
He added that the US and the international community are ready to help, saying that “the time to form a government, not block it, is now. The time to build a government is now. The time for comprehensive reform is now.”
Hale said that talks with Iran on reviving a 2015 nuclear deal could foster regional stability but "would only be the beginning of our work" as the United States addresses "the other elements of Iran's destabilizing behavior".
While pledging not to abandon US interests in Lebanon, Hale said resolving a maritime border dispute with Israel would "have potential to unlock significant economic benefits for Lebanon".
The two neighboring enemies launched negotiations last year, a culmination of years of US diplomacy, which have since stalled. The dispute has held up offshore exploration in the eastern Mediterranean. While Israel pumps gas from offshore fields, Lebanon has yet to find commercial reserves.
A statement issued by the Lebanese presidency later said Aoun had asked to accredit international experts to draw border lines according to international law for the area and asked that no oil and gas exploration work be done in the waters in the meantime.
A Lebanese draft decree expanding the country's claims by around 1,400 square kilometers has been approved by the caretaker prime minister and two senior ministers and is awaiting presidential and full cabinet approval.