Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Lebanon: Caught in the middle

Saad Al-Hariri’s resignation may be a covet Saudi message to Iran, writes Camelia Entekhabifard

 

Lebanon: Caught  in the middle
Lebanon: Caught in the middle

The region woke up on Saturday to the news that Saad Al-Hariri had resigned as prime minister of Lebanon. The news shocked the Lebanese, and also many in the wider region, since Al-Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia rather than from his own country and spoke of threats to his life since his father’s assassination.

Al-Hariri’s father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri, was killed in a car-bomb in Beirut in 2005.

In an emotional speech in Riyadh, Al-Hariri blamed Iran and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah for his resignation due to what he called their interference in the government and internal politics of Lebanon.

Just a day earlier Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was in Lebanon and had a meeting with Al-Hariri. Many in Iran are trying to understand what led Al-Hariri to resign after this meeting and just 11 months after the new government of Lebanon was formed after a two-year hiatus.

Despite the huge Iranian investment in Lebanon, many in the country do not have a good opinion of Iran or of its presence in the country. They blame Iran for the economic difficulties the country has been facing and for the actions of Hizbullah, which is supported by Iran, making it more difficult, such people say, for Lebanon to mend fences with other Arab countries.

Meanwhile, on Saturday evening officials in Saudi Arabia said the country had intercepted a ballistic missile fired from Yemen after a loud explosion was heard near Riyadh airport.

The missile was destroyed over the capital and fragments landed in the airport area, officials quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said. The officials blamed Iran for being behind the missile attack, and there was speculation that the attack could have been in retaliation for Al-Hariri’s resignation which could destabilise Lebanon in general and weaken Hizbullah.

Following an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia in 2016, Michel Aoun was elected president of Lebanon after two years of the office remaining vacant. Al-Hariri was then appointed prime minister.

The outcome sorted out many internal issues that had been hanging over Lebanon, and it led to a boost for tourism. With an end to the civil war, and the possible easing of the crisis in Syria and return of the 2.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the country may soon start to enjoy better economic conditions.

It may be that Saudi actions in Lebanon have threatened Iran, shattering Iranian dreams of safe-haven stability in Lebanon. In response, Iran may have provided its Houthi rebel allies in Yemen with the missile fired against Riyadh. If this scenario is true, the region will face a further stand-off between the two major regional powers of Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Many Iranians are upset at the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States, with the latter threatening to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. Many Saudis are concerned that Iran may not have given up its regional ambitions and may still be aiming to develop its influence abroad.

The danger of a clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia may affect the Lebanese, in the dangerous border zone between Syria and Israel, and this will especially be the case if the political crisis cannot be solved soon in Lebanon.

Iran has defended the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and interfered in the Syrian Civil War in order to keep its access to Lebanon open through a friendly government in Syria.

The “resistance axis” referred to by Velayati in what he called its victorious confrontation with the Islamic State (IS) group thus meant Iran, Hizbullah, and their supporters in Syria.

Velayati did not mention the coalition government in Lebanon, and neither did he recognise the efforts made by others to include Hizbullah in the unity government. This would not have been possible without the support of Saudi Arabia.

Without Al-Hariri in power, or any other trustworthy Lebanese prime minister supported by Saudi Arabia, Hizbullah will not be able to act as a member of the government and justify its various banking transactions.

Al-Hariri’s resignation was thus a Saudi message to Tehran, to the effect that without Saudi participation in regional affairs Iran cannot claim the victories it has been claiming without including other regional players.

Stability in Lebanon is important for the international community, which risks seeing another escalation between Hizbullah and Israel without a government in Beirut that can put itself at the head of the country and restore national unity. 

In Al-Hariri’s case, not only did Saudi Arabia support his resignation, but perhaps the United States did too as his resignation will limit Iran and Hizbullah’s activities in Lebanon, making money transfer and banking activities more difficult in line with the wishes of US President Donald Trump.

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