Middle East in Focus
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation has caught people in Lebanon and the broader region largely by surprise. Mr. Hariri cited fear for his personal safety as the main reason, pointing the finger at Iran and its ally Hezbollah as destabilizing elements in his country. The resignation has sparked fears of renewed civil unrest in Lebanon and of an intensifying conflict between the two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Lebanese political establishment has reacted with shock to the news of the Mr. Hariri’s resignation and, according to a Press TV (Iran) report, prominent members of government have requested that the prime minister return to Lebanon: “Lebanese Justice Minister Salim Jreissati says Saad Hariri, who announced his resignation as Lebanon’s prime minister from Saudi Arabia on Saturday, should return to the country and his resignation should be ‘voluntary’ to be formally considered by President Michel Aoun.... After a meeting of high-level officials chaired by President Aoun, Jreissati said on Monday that Hariri’s resignation ‘must be voluntary in every sense,’ signaling that the Lebanese government regards the sudden move as involuntary.... On Sunday, Hezbollah’s secretary general also said that Hariri’s resignation had not been voluntary. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah noted that the real reason for Hariri’s resignation had to be sought in Saudi Arabia.”
The Iranian daily Tehran Times cites various Iranian officials who have pushed back against Mr. Hariri’s accusations: “Mohsen Rezaee, secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, said late on Saturday that Hariri resigned after Saudi Arabia twisted his arm to do so…. An informed Iranian source said on Sunday that Hariri’s resignation came after Iran turned down a request by Riyadh to stop expressing support for the oppressed Yemeni nation in the face of a deadly Saudi war.... The commander of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) responded to allegations by Hariri against Iran and Lebanon's resistance movement Hezbollah, saying Hariri was a ‘stooge’ of Saudi Arabia. Hariri’s sudden departure was aimed at ‘creating instability’ in Lebanon, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said.”
It appears though that Iran’s protestations have fallen on deaf ears, as this Khaleej Times editorial shows: “Hezbollah is involved in nearly every fight that matters to Iran and, more significantly, has helped recruit, train and arm a wide range of new militant groups that are also advancing Iran's agenda. GCC leaders are right in pointing [out] that Iran is singularly the most disruptive regime in the Middle East. The umbilical link between Iran and Hezbollah cannot be negated. Hariri's resignation could raise tensions and plunge Lebanon into political chaos, but there is little that can be done until Iranian proxies are weeded out. It's going to be a long-drawn-out struggle.”
The National’s editorial staff takes a similar stance with regards to Iran’s role in the region, pointing out that: “Saturday brought with it the reminder that this region cannot truly be free of conflict and strife as long as the Iranian regime’s influence goes unchecked.... those who believe that conduct of the Iranian regime can be moderated by enriching it further with the nuclear deal are gravely mistaken. A system that rewards the current Iranian leadership for bad behaviour ensures that such behaviour is amplified, not curtailed. This is why the nuclear deal has proven such a spectacular failure at improving the security of the region. But, as Mr. Hariri warned on Saturday, there will come a time when Iran will have to account for its actions.”
Delving deeper in the potential motivations behind Mr. Hariri’s resignation, Diana Moukalled opines in the pages of Arab News that the prime minister’s decision came down to the ongoing power struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia: “The president and speaker said the situation required no reaction, but rather a lot of thinking about the consequences of taking a view — especially since the Lebanese lira, the only indicator that the country is capable of coping in a crisis such as this, is under some pressure.... It is likely that Tehran and its local allies have started looking for an exit strategy, but the confrontation this time is in the open. Hariri’s resignation is part of it, and Lebanon seems to be the weakest link. Saudi Arabia appears to feel that the official position of Lebanon in this confrontation is not in its interests. That is why it has chosen Lebanon as the platform for a direct and different kind of confrontation with Tehran.”
Yedioth Ahronoth’s Smadar Perry suggests that the resignation is likely to escalate the conflict between the two regional powers, with the Saudis having made the calculation that the status quo in Lebanon is not in their favor: “Hariri is leaving a split Lebanon behind him: The Sunni camp, which supports Saudi Arabia, against the Hezbollah-led Shiite camp, which supports Iran. In recent months, the Shiite camp has grown stronger and it controls all the government institutions—the army, the security and intelligence apparatuses, the government ministries and the presidential palace.... Hariri’s departure is aimed at paving the way to an escalation in the Saudi-Iranian conflict. The royal family in Riyadh has had enough of seeing Iran expanding in Syria and the Revolutionary Guard taking over Lebanon. The Saudi crown prince’s plans have yet to be revealed in full, but sources in Beirut believe Hezbollah is already on defensive alert."
The further escalation of the conflict is also on the mind of the Jordan Times editorial staff, who argue that Mr. Hariri’s “sudden departure from the political scene will complicate Lebanon’s politics and might feed into the regional struggle for power between the two main Muslim sects. The rivalry between Riyadh and Tehran is clearly spilling over in certain countries, and unless these two regional powers can reach an accommodation of sorts, the Middle East is bound to face more turmoil and disruptions. Iran has already extended its hegemony over Iraq, Lebanon and Syria; its deployment of forces in Iraq and Syria is a clear message that it is there for the long haul. Having Lebanon plunged [into] chaos and instability can only exacerbate an already messy regional scene.”
Yedioth Ahronoth’s Yossi Yehoshua notes the similarities between Mr. Hariri’s accusations and that of the Israeli government, pointing out that “Israel’s finest speech writers couldn’t have produced a better speech for Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri against Hezbollah and Iran.... In the web of interests, none of the parties in the region wants to launch a war right now, but that doesn’t mean a war won’t break out. Hezbollah needs peace and quiet to lead the rehabilitation of its forces after they return to Lebanon from Syria. Furthermore, the organization is going to be up to its neck in internal Lebanese politics from now on. The Iranians have no interest in using Hezbollah at this time. They would rather keep the organization for its original purpose, and use it against Israel in the event of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Israel has no interest in launching a war either, but the developments on the ground call for legitimate military activities, and one of these activities could lead to an escalation to war.”
Similarly, in a recent editorial, the Jerusalem Post editorial staff expresses the view that the resignation may be considered an acknowledgment on the part of the Saudis that their influence in Lebanon is waning under the current arrangement: “At the same time, the Hariri resignation might also be the result of the Saudis’ realization that they have failed in their attempt to influence the course of Lebanese politics through the prime minister.... It would be unfair, however, to claim that the Saudis alone have initiated the crisis in Lebanon. The truth is that Iran, via Hezbollah, has been pushing for a confrontation. Hariri’s government was losing control over its foreign policy and security issues, as he was serving as a cover for a Hezbollah-dominated government.... The Hariri resignation signals a new era of instability in the North. But it is also an example of how Israel’s interests dovetail with Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Egypt and Jordan against Iranian influence. Israel should do its best to take advantage of this situation.”