Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Tuesday,18 June, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Rising tensions in Lebanon

The growing tensions in Lebanon and increasing Saudi-Iranian competition are threatening the region with a new and unwanted conflagration, writes Camelia Entekhabifard


Rising tensions  in Lebanon
Rising tensions in Lebanon

Prime minister of Lebanon Saad Al-Hariri resigned on 4 November from Riyadh, shortly after an Iranian official visited him in Beirut last Friday. Al-Hariri, whose resignation surprised commentators, blamed Iran for its interference in Arab affairs and the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah for his decision.

Political stability in Lebanon is important to Iran because of its patronage of Hizbullah, but Saudi Arabia does not object to this stability being shaken in order to show its backing by US President Donald Trump and to send a strong message to Tehran.

Al-Hariri is still in Riyadh, and his absence from Lebanon since his resignation has led to speculation that he is being kept in Saudi Arabia against his wishes. Saudi Arabia may be wanting to mobilise anti-Iranian and anti-Hizbullah sentiments in the region and particularly in Lebanon, and this wish may have led to the present situation.

The same evening that Al-Hariri resigned, Saudi Arabia claimed to have intercepted a ballistic missile fired from Yemen by Houthi rebels after a loud explosion was heard near Riyadh Airport. Trump also immediately blamed Iran for the attack.

While the world needs to concentrate on the war in Yemen and the associated humanitarian catastrophe and to finish the fight with the Islamic State (IS) group in the region, the growing tensions in Lebanon and the possibility of a civil war or escalation between Israel and Hizbullah threatens the whole region regardless of Iranian interference in Arab affairs or Saudi wishes to put Iran in its place.

Such new conflicts are not in the interest of anyone in the region, and they are not wanted either by the United States. The US state department quickly warned the countries and the parties concerned not to use Lebanon for their own purposes and to respect the country’s sovereignty.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a statement called on Al-Hariri to return to Lebanon and then to decide on his resignation. In a clear message to Iran, Saudi Arabia and even Israel to back off from Lebanon, he said the US would not support any confrontation with Hizbullah.

These events do not seem to be related to the Iran nuclear deal, but at their core is the strategy the Trump administration has promised to pursue in closing down Hizbullah’s financial resources and pressuring Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRG) to rein in its presence in the region.

Trump takes issue with certain items in the nuclear deal relating to Iran’s ballistic missile programme. At the core of the US demands is the allegation that Iran has not adhered to the soul of the agreement, and the US has expressed its frustrations over Iran’s military activities in the region and its “aggressive” attitude towards the US.

After the deal was reached, Iran spent as much time as possible in avoiding getting engaged in regional talks with the West or even mending its shattered diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. What it wanted was the lifting of the sanctions against the country and a boost to its economy.

Perhaps what bothers Trump the most about the nuclear agreement is his suspicion about the real aim of the Iranians after 2025 when the agreement expires and Iran is free to resume its “peaceful nuclear programme,” as the Iranian leadership puts it.

Iranian advances in the country’s ballistic missile capabilities, viewed as a threat to Israel, do not raise questions about US protection of its regional Arab allies. Israel is the main concern, and the zero changes in Iran’s behaviour to soften the tone towards the US or become engaged with regional talks have upset Trump.

Saudi Arabia has called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League on 19 November in Cairo, but it seems unlikely that Egypt will want to interfere in the Saudi-Iranian competition.

Iran has been interfering in Arab affairs and expanding its Shia ideology around the region, but while Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has recently said that “Gulf security is Egypt’s security” he has more interest in solving problems than in adding fuel to the fire.

Egyptian mediation between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon may be the main priority in order to clarify Al-Hariri’s fate and take him back to Lebanon. Finding a solution to the regional crisis will be the key to preventing Iran from increasing its influence in the region, particularly in post-IS Syria and Iraq.

Recently Cairo hosted peace talks between the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah, signalling that their union would be possible if Hamas can stay away from Iran and Hizbullah. This will not be able to be achieved without unity among the Arabs and peace in Lebanon.

For the US, the case is different. Trump does not wish to confront Iran and Hizbullah in a direct war. Increasing the pressure on them and their allies might have a better impact on whether Iran will take part in another round of talks covering its missile programme and regional ambitions.

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