BEIRUT, Lebanon, Nov. 5 (UPI) -- Iranian moves to join Lebanon in exploring for oil and natural gas in the Mediterranean near Israeli waters where big strikes have been reported complicate a flash point energy dispute at a time of major tension across the Middle East.
Iran signed a cluster of economic agreements with Beirut in October when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his first visit to Lebanon, where Hezbollah, Iran's main proxy in the region, has become the dominant power.
The agreements included large-scale oil and gas exploration accords. But since Iran is the subject of ever-tightening economic sanctions by the United Nations, the United States and the European Union, with its rundown energy industry a particular target, those agreements may not mean much right now.
Veteran Middle East commentator Robert Fisk, who has lived in Lebanon for three decades, said "it's easy to see all this as another attempt by Iran to dominate Lebanon through oil and electricity -- and the Lebanese government's acceptance of the agreements as a sign of submission."
But, he concluded, "like everything else in Lebanon the whole fandango is more mirage than reality" because any deals Beirut may sign with Iran would breach the harsh new sanctions imposed by the United Nations in June.
Fisk also pointed out that "the dark specter of Iranian oilmen drilling the Mediterranean seabed 70 miles north of the Israeli border is also illusory.
"French and Norwegian companies have done much of the drilling in Iran; the refining has been carried out by French and Italian companies.
"Now the Russian and Chinese are doing the same job in Iran. The idea that Tehran would furnish cash to pay Moscow and Peking to explore reserves off Lebanon is close to fantasy."
All true. But Iran's efforts to extend its power through Hezbollah to Israel's northern border, off which Israelis believe they have found vast quantities of gas along with the equivalent of billions of barrels of oil, is causing some anxiety in the Jewish state.
The Levant has been one of the Middle East's major battlegrounds for 60 years. Four years ago Hezbollah and Israel waged an inconclusive 34-day war, which many in the region see as unfinished business.
Israel's gas strikes have simply added a potentially explosive dimension to an already complex crisis in the region.
Lebanese officials claim that the biggest of the Israeli strikes, the Leviathan field in deep water 50 miles west of Haifa, extends northward into Lebanese waters. Leviathan is believed to contain up to 16 trillion cubic feet of gas and 4.3 billion barrels of oil, according to Texas firm Nobel Energy Co.
It carried out the exploration with an Israeli consortium led by the Delek Group owned by billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva.
Nobel reckons that with two smaller gas fields, Tamar and Dalit, Israel could have 24 trillion cubic feet of gas, possibly as much as 30 trillion.
That's double the size of Britain's famed North Sea gas fields and could make Israel, long considered resource-poor, an energy exporter.
Hezbollah, which runs a state within a state inside Lebanon and has the most powerful military forces in the land, has threatened military action if Israel taps into Lebanese energy resources.
Israel has vowed to retaliate for any attacks on its oil and gas fields and the infrastructure that is expected to be built around the energy strikes.
Iran and Syria, Tehran's key Arab ally and these days again the dominant power in Lebanon, are allegedly pouring long-range surface-to-surface missiles into Hezbollah's already powerful arsenal.
This makes the Israelis extremely uneasy, more so since the energy bonanza it is about to enjoy, giving it energy security for up to a century, now becomes vulnerable, along with its population centers.
Lebanon's parliament has authorized gas exploration in territorial waters but the tiny state, burdened by a $55 billion debt and with no viable resources, is lagging way behind Israel.
But the stakes are high. A recent study by the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that there's up to 122 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas off the coasts of Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Gaza.
On the face of it, that would seem to be the perfect catalyst for peace. But that's not how things work in the Middle East.