Saturday,18 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Saturday,18 November, 2017
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Is war coming to Lebanon?

The sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri has spurred fears that Lebanon could soon be the theatre of a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, writes Khaled Dawoud

 

Al-Hariri with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman
Al-Hariri with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman

The television interview delivered by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Al-Al-Hariri from his residence in Riyadh Sunday failed to calm protests in Lebanon demanding his return home, or put an end to reports that he has been held there against his will as part of a sudden escalation in tensions between the arch-enemies, Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran.

On 4 November, Al-Hariri made a short appearance on a Saudi-owned television channel, announcing his resignation as prime minister. He blamed the Iranian-backed Shia Lebanese group Hizbullah for his decision, saying it was acting upon Tehran’s orders and involving Lebanon in wars in Syria, Yemen and Iraq that had nothing to do with the country’s interests.

The appointment of Al-Hariri as prime minister, and election of Lebanese President Michel Aoun a year ago in a country divided along sectarian lines, was partly seen as a sign of compromise between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Al-Hariri, a dual Lebanese-Saudi national, represents the Sunni Lebanese community and depends mainly on Saudi support. Aoun, a nationalist Christian Maronite, maintained strong ties with Hizbullah, which publicly declares loyalty to Tehran and admits that Iran is its main source for military and financial support.

In his interview Sunday, Al-Hariri vehemently denied that he was being held in Saudi Arabia, together with his family, as part of the wide-scale crackdown ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman on 5 November against prominent members of the Royal Family and internationally renowned businessmen such as Prince Walid bin Talal, on the claim of fighting corruption.

On the same day those arrests were carried out, Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a ballistic missile that almost hit Riyadh International Airport. Crown Prince Bin Salman strongly condemned the attack and claimed Iran provided the Yemeni rebels with the advanced missile. “[Saudi Arabia] considers this a blatant act of military aggression by the Iranian regime, and could rise to be considered as an act of war,” said the young crown prince who is causing a lot of unease in the region and internationally by his aggressive style, even if under the banner of modernising Saudi Arabia and meeting the demands of younger generations who form a majority in the world’s second largest oil producer.

The fast developments created fears of a possible direct military confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran after fighting several proxy wars in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. Hizbullah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, even went as far as accusing Saudi of “kidnapping Al-Hariri” and pressing Israel to attack Lebanon as the first step in an open confrontation between the two regional rivals.

“I’m not talking here about analysis, but information,” he said. “The Saudis asked Israel to attack Lebanon.”

He provided no evidence of his claim, but Western and regional analysts have also said that, given all the confusing and unexpected events and unpredictable players, they could not entirely rule out such a scenario.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has long considered Iran to be Israel’s foremost enemy, a potential nuclear threat as well as a strategic adversary seeking to convert post-war Syria into a staging ground for attacks against Israel, or into a corridor to transfer missiles and other weapons to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Netanyahu also strongly opposed the nuclear deal reached by former US president Barack Obama and supported by the four other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany in July 2015.

Israeli officials, however, have been publicly predicting another war with Hizbullah while also vowing to do all they can to postpone it.

“There are now those in the region who would like Israel to go to war with Hizbullah and fight a Saudi war to the last Israeli,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group. “There is no interest in that here.”

Daniel Shapiro, a former US ambassador to Israel, said that Israel and Saudi Arabia were pursuing similar goals at sharply different speeds and levels of proficiency.

“I’m not sure they’re aligned tactically,” he said in an interview. Crown Prince Bin Salman, he added, “seems very impatient to actually spark the confrontation”.

Meanwhile, the classic contradiction between statements made by US President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson came to the surface again in reaction to the Saudi charges against Iran. 

Trump has been a sharp critic of Iran, refused to certify that Tehran remained committed to the nuclear deal, and even asked Congress to impose new sanctions. He has also been very supportive of Saudi Arabia and the young crown prince, whom he has met with several times.

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, was in Riyadh a few days before the escalation in tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and held an undisclosed meeting with the crown prince, talking with him until the early morning hours, The New York Times reported. The White House has not announced what they discussed but officials privately said that they were meeting about the administration’s efforts to forge an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

Tillerson did not appear as enthusiastic as his president about the sudden escalation in tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia. He warned Friday “against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country”.

Other world leaders also sought to calm tensions, including France and Egypt, who both maintain close ties with Lebanon as well as Saudi Arabia.

French President Emmanuel Macron left Saudi Arabia Friday after a brief meeting with the crown prince. During the unexpected two-hour visit Thursday, Macron “reiterated the importance France attaches to Lebanon’s stability, security, sovereignty and integrity”, his office said. At a news conference in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, before the meeting, Macron said he did not share Saudi Arabia’s “very harsh opinions” of Iran.

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who repeatedly announced commitment to maintaining security in the Gulf region and defending Saudi interests, dispatched Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri to visit six Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia, in order to discuss means of finding a “political solution” to the rise in tension between Riyadh and Tehran. Shoukri reiterated that a military confrontation would only make the situation worse in a volatile region. 

Analysts say a new war in the region is unlikely, but some have warned that increased tensions could provoke an economic crisis or even start a war accidentally.

Still, some argued that the threat of conflict is being floated to distract from Saudi Arabia’s internal turmoil as the country’s crown prince locked up political rivals. The prince will likely be hawkish on Iran while consolidating power at home through the purge, which resulted in one member of the Royal Family being shot dead as he resisted arrest. 

“Foreign policy, especially in the context of the rivalry with Iran, has been used as a distraction from domestic turmoil and internal divisions within the kingdom, especially with hard line clerics who were also detained as part of Prince Salman’s recent purge,” Harrison Akins, a research fellow at the Howard Baker Centre, told Newsweek.

Riyadh and Tehran broke off diplomatic relations in January 2016 after Iranians stormed Saudi Arabia’s embassy and consulate in response to the execution of a prominent Shia cleric. Rhetoric between the two powers grew increasingly belligerent, including over Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbour, Qatar.

Riyadh and several of its Gulf allies and Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with Qatar in June 2017, accusing Doha of support for extremism and links with Iran, claims it denies.

Clement Therme, a researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told AFP that the main cause of the current tensions is related to the “proxy confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia”.

Recent months have seen changes in these confrontations that appear to have brought tensions to a head, he said.

The reaction from Iran to Saudi bellicosity has been uncharacteristically muted. While strongly denying any role in arming the Houthis in Yemen with the missile that targeted Riyadh International Airport, Tehran has limited itself to calling for peace and unity and blaming Mohamed bin Salman’s accusations on problems inside the kingdom.

“If you have internal problems in [Saudi] Arabia, try to solve those problems. Why do you seek to make problems for others because of your own problems? Why do you speak against the countries of the region?” Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said in a cabinet meeting Wednesday, according to Iran’s official news agency, IRNA.

For Iran, an escalation of proxy wars into a direct confrontation with Saudi Arabia would be counterproductive, to say the least, especially since events on the ground are going their way, for the time being.

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