The Energy Weapon and Geopolitical Blackmail

“If we will not be able to extract and sell gas from our territorial waters, no one else will,” boasted Hasan Nasrallah, the Lebanese Hezbollah’s Secretary General. His July 13 speech, delivered on live television, was a direct threat against Israel’s oil and gas extraction efforts in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts estimate that some of the world’s largest gas reserves lie under the seabed there, in what is possibly the world’s most volatile region.

In the same speech, Nasrallah argued that since the war in Ukraine does not appear to have an end in sight, and with the growing energy crisis Europe faces, Israel’s nascent fossil fuel industry and its unimpeded operation have become a lifeline for the old continent. It is exactly this existential need for a source of energy that Nasrallah vowed to take advantage of, in order to advance Lebanon’s position during the negotiations with Israel, aimed at delineating the maritime borders separating them.

To demonstrate how serious Hezbollah’s threat is, the Islamist movement sent three unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) on July 2, in the direction of an Israeli gas extraction platform, resulting in mass panic among the ranks of the Israeli Defense Forces. Nasrallah promised that the next UAVs he sends might not be as harmless.

Clearly, energy—particularly gas production—is being weaponized and used to blackmail world powers into giving in to the demands of revisionist regional actors. In parallel, Russia and China are further contributing to the crisis, as they restrict access to and supply for the global market. Russia is currently slowing down its gas delivery to Europe, diverting it toward its eastern neighbors, while China simultaneously moves to aggressively absorb the energy supply that European and American markets reject or fail to acquire.

In the face of an energy crisis, the likes of which the world has not seen in nearly 50 years, the Biden Administration has yet to make any progress on remedies. Joe Biden’s most recent trip to the Middle East was publicized as a major effort toward one such remedy. But the Saudi response to Biden’s request for increased oil output was discouraging at best.

Muhammad Bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, infamous for having ordered the gruesome killing of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi, declared that Saudi Arabia was already extracting its maximum capacity of 13 million oil barrels per day. A few days later, the Saudis agreed with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov that OPEC should not deviate from its course of action, set prior to the war in Ukraine.

Also, as long as the Biden Administration insists on pursuing long-term green policies in lieu of resolving the present crisis, the remaining options might dwindle to the point that sacrificing U.S. allies and interests abroad will become necessary.

Currently, the only foreseeable solutions are either to give in to Putin’s conquest, occupation, and annexation of eastern Ukraine, to sacrifice the EU’s energy security and economy, foreshadowing a greater economic crisis than already predicted, or to allow Iran greater freedom of movement in the Middle East by consolidating Hezbollah’s hold over Lebanon.

Each of these scenarios comes with its own geopolitical costs. Losing Ukraine immediately after the United States’ humiliating exit from Afghanistan would signal the end of the unipolar world order. Global allies like Taiwan, for example, will think twice before relying on the United States for support, while contenders like China and Russia will feel emboldened to define a new multipolar world order.

If the EU is left to fend for itself and try to secure new energy routes, the ensuing economic disaster will not only cripple an economy that rivals the United States’ or China’s in size, but it will also worsen the economic performance of the bloc’s largest trading partner, the United States. American products will prove less appealing to the European consumer, while European manufacturers will find more receptive markets across the Atlantic. American industries, which are trying their best to compete with their Chinese counterparts, will effectively face the noose if this were to happen.

Allowing Hezbollah to dictate the terms of the negotiations with Israel would also prove a symbolic win for the Islamist movement. It will certainly invest this victory to cement its shaky position inside Lebanon, in light of the economic and political collapse the country has faced since 2019 and for which Hezbollah has largely been blamed, particularly as it ferociously defended a political caste that has bled the country dry since the end of the civil war in 1990. As a result, Lebanon will further come under the control of Iran, consolidating the latter’s position in the Middle East, particularly on Israel’s northern border.

In fact, U.S. special energy envoy Amos Hochstein relayed to Lebanese politicians some of Israel’s concessions concerning the maritime border demarcation. Most Lebanese media are interpreting this as a success for Hezbollah, now seen to have forced the Israeli side to give in to their demands for fear of paralyzing the Jewish state’s offshore oil and gas extraction platforms.

Any outcome seen as a victory for Hezbollah would be the first major geopolitical defeat for the United States in this energy war. And seeing the results of Biden’s feckless and inefficient management of the crisis so far, one wonders whether the United States might end up facing the perfect storm, where Iran gains the upper hand in the Middle East, Europe goes into a major economic recession, and Russia accomplishes its expansionist goals in Ukraine. At present, there are no signs to indicate that anything is being done to prevent such a geopolitical cataclysm.

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About Hicham Tohme

Hicham Tohme is the director of Trans-Atlantic Network Consulting. He holds a PhD in Politics from the University of Sheffield and is an expert on Russian military interventions and foreign relations, particularly in the Middle East. He is the author of Russia's Geostrategic Outlook and the Syrian Crisis (2020).

Photo: Getty Images