The political earthquake spotlights the ongoing regional tussle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran
In a surprise announcement, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned from his post on Saturday. Speaking in a televised address from Riyadh, Hariri said he feared for his life. “We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assassination of martyr Rafiq Hariri,” he affirmed. “I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life.”
Rafiq Hariri is Saad’s father, who served as Lebanon’s prime minister twice—most recently from 2000 to 2004—before he was assassinated in 2005, allegedly by Hizbullah.
In his comments, Hariri focused on the so-called Shiite Axis’ attempt to foment strife in the region. “Iran has a strong desire to destroy the Arab world,” he said. “In the past decades, Hizbullah [has amassed] power [through] weaponry, which it claims is for resistance but is being used against our Syrian and Yemeni brothers and even the Lebanese people…. Despite my efforts, Iran continues to abuse Lebanon,” Hariri concluded.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qassemi dismissed the remarks, retorting that “the resigned Lebanese premier’s repetition of unfounded accusations leveled against Iran by the Zionists, Saudis and Americans bears witness to the fact that this resignation, too, is a new scenario to create new tension in Lebanon and in the region.”
But others believe the charges are valid.
“The main reason behind Hariri’s resignation is Hizbullah and Iran’s damaging over-involvement in Lebanon,” Muhammad al-Hajjar, a member of the Lebanese Future Movement political party, told The Media Line. “Iran is involved in everything in Lebanon, through Hizbullah, which doesn’t take Lebanese interests into account and instead only implements Iran’s agenda.”
Another reason Hariri resigned, al-Hajjar contended, is that he received concrete warnings of an imminent assassination attempt on his life.
Prof. Joshua Teitelbaum, a Senior Research Associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, contextualized the resignation within broader Sunni-Shiite regional tensions. “Lebanon has long been on the receiving end of countries trying to extend their influence. Since 2005 [when former PM Rafiq Hariri was assassinated], there has been a battle for influence and tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have grown.”
Saudi involvement in Lebanon is not new. The Arab kingdom was central in mediating the 1989 Taif Agreement, which aimed to end the fifteen year Lebanese Civil War. “Rafiq Hariri was aligned with Riyadh to get investments and rebuild Lebanon,” explained Teitelbaum. “The agreement to end the civil war was signed in Saudi Arabia. So there was a lot of Saudi influence there. [The kingdom] is now trying to extend its influence and fill the vacuum that had been left by the Obama administration.”
Hariri’s resignation, he continued, “is a Saudi play to rein in Hizbullah, which is very worried about Israel. It is also an effort to rein in Iran, which is smart enough not to overplay its hand—at least for the time being.”
Teitelbaum emphasized that in this post-Islamic State terror group era, Saudi Arabia and Iran are trying to assert themselves. “A lot of issues are interconnected,” he concluded, “and for this reason, it is important to look at the entire region, such as Syria and Yemen, to understand what is happening in Lebanon.”
Hariri’s announcement has plunged Lebanon into political chaos and uncertainty as the governing coalition has disintegrated.
The composition of Hariri’s coalition, which included nearly all of Lebanon’s political parties as well as Hizbullah, was perceived as a victory for Iran.
Michel Aoun, Lebanon’s president and a close Hizbullah ally, said he is awaiting Hariri’s return to the country to better understand the “circumstances of the resignation.”
It is not yet clear who will succeed Hariri and the candidate pool is limited since Lebanon’s political system requires that the prime minister be a Sunni Muslim.
According to al-Hajjar, “Hizbullah should take into consideration the national interests of Lebanon and other Arab countries—not Iran’s. Hariri’s resignation serves as a warning to Iran to take responsibility for what happens next.”