The Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad al-Hariri, unexpectedly resigned on Saturday, saying in a fiery televised broadcast from Saudi Arabia that he feared for his life while also fiercely criticizing Iran. According to regional analysts, the move has "plunged Lebanon into crisis" amid heightened regional tensions.
In his resignation speech, Hariri - whose farther, former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, was assassinated in 2005 - fired a vicious tirade against Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah group for what he said was their meddling in Arab affairs and said that "Iran's arms in the region will be cut off." Accusing Iran of sowing "fear, chaos, strife and destruction" throughout the region, including Lebanon, Hariri said that "the evil that Iran spreads in the region will backfire on it."
Hariri's resignation was unprecedented in the way it was announced, in a televised address from an undisclosed location in Riyadh. In his speech, Hariri suggested he feared for his life and said the climate in the country is similar to the one that existed before his father, the late prime minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in 2005.
That said, Hariri may have had an ulterior motive for his fire and brimstone speech: Hariri - whose family is very close to Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional competitor - was appointed prime minister in late 2016 and headed a 30-member coalition government that included members of the Shiite militant Hezbollah. But it's been an uneasy partnership between Hariri, who heads a Sunni-led camp loyal to Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah, which represents a camp loyal to Shiite Iran. President Michel Aoun, who was elected in October 2016 after more than a two-year presidential vacuum, is a close ally of Hezbollah.
Hariri's resignation comes at a time when Iran's regional power is surging, having recently played a critical role in the quashing of the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum, as well as collaborating with Russia in Syria to preserve the regime of al Assad and defeat local Islamic State forces. As U.S. and Saudi Arabia have sought ways to curb Iran's growing influence in the region, Hariri has come under pressure to distance himself from the militant group which has sent thousands of troops to neighboring Syria to shore up President Bashar Assad's forces.
Speaking from Saudi Arabia, Hariri may have decided to simply remain with his Saudi friends for the foreseeable future, and was not immediately clear if the now former premier intended to return to Lebanon. In a statement, the presidential office said Aoun was informed by Hariri in a phone call of his resignation, adding that the president now awaits Hariri's return to clarify the circumstances of his resignation and proceed accordingly.
The resignation comes at an unstable time for the middle-eastern nation. Quote AP:
"Hariri's bombshell resignation — even close aides seemed unaware of the announcement — ushers in a stage of deep uncertainty and potential instability. It also throws into doubt parliamentary elections slated for early next year which have been repeatedly delayed. It comes amid a sharp escalation in Saudi rhetoric against its regional archrival Iran and puts Lebanon at the center of that rivalry."
Echoing AP's dismary was Martin Patience, a BBC reporter in Beirut, who wrote that the prime minister's resignation "has opened up a chasm of uncertainty in Lebanon."
It's still not clear why he announced his decision in Saudi Arabia - an extraordinary move that left even his own MPs bewildered. But the move will be seen through the lens of the great Shia-Sunni divide that's fuelling much of the violence across the Middle East. It's pitted the Sunni power, Saudi Arabia, against the Shia power, Iran - with both sides backing different players to wield influence.
One thing is certain, Hariri's resignation will increase instability in #Lebanon, which may exactly be the point (for Riyadh)— Michael Horowitz (@michaelh992) November 4, 2017
Hazem al-Amin, a Lebanese writer who follows regional affairs, said Hariri's resignation is "completely a Saudi step" that comes in the context of an international and regional atmosphere against Hezbollah and against Iranian influence in the region.
"Lebanon is a fragile country. This confrontation (between Saudi Arabia and Iran) is more violent than Lebanon can stand up to," he said, warning of economic and security ramifications.
The push to contain Iran has been a key priority for US foreign policy in recent weeks: two weeks ago, Rex Tillerson conducted a visit to Gulf states, whose sole purpose was to make it clear to regional US allies to come together and halt the Iranian ascent even as Arab nations bicker amongst themselves.
Tillerson's Gulf visit came as part of concerted efforts to curb Iran's rapidly expanding influence in the region, including boosting the clout of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia in Shiite-majority Iraq, where Iran backs Shia militias fighting in the north - part of a wider regional battle for influence that extends from Syria to Yemen - even as there was scant hope of a breakthrough in attempts to reconcile Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Then earlier this week, the CIA released thousands of formerly confidential files on bin Laden which according to at least one former intel official were meant to deceive the public on Iran and specifically alleged ties between al-Aqeda and Iran.
To the cursory reader with even a basic understanding of Middle East geopolitics and religion, the first thing that will stand out is the extreme unlikelihood that the hardline Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran would sponsor Sunni fundamentalists which have historically been at war with Iran. Furthermore, it has already been well-known that al-Qaeda has long had a presence in Iran's restive Arabic speaking Sunni heartland in the country's west (about 10% of Iran's population is Sunni) - a sizable minority community which has suffered a tenuous existence of perpetual tension with the Tehran government over the decades.
But then to go even further with the claim that Iran hatched a plan to train al-Qaeda operatives at Hezbollah camps in Lebanon is even more extraordinary. It is as likely as George Bush's now debunked claim that Saddam Hussein sponsored al-Qaeda. Hussein was a Baathist and secular nationalist dictator who actively persecuted extremists opposed to Baathist rule.
Commenting on Hariri's resignation, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said the resignation is a plot by the U.S., Israel and the Saudis to foment tensions in Lebanon and the region, the semi-official Iranian Tasnim news agency reported. Ghasemi dismissed Hariri's "baseless accusations," which he said indicate that "a new scenario" for the region was being drawn. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hariri's resignation and comments "are a wake-up call to the international community to take action against the Iranian aggression that is trying to turn Syria into Lebanon 2."
"This aggression endangers not only Israel but the entire Middle East. The international community needs to come together and stand against this aggression," he said.
In his speech, Hariri speech directly lashed out at the Iran-backed Hezbollah organization,which wields considerable power in Lebanon.
Hariri said Hezbollah's policies have put Lebanon "in the eye of the storm."
His attacks on Hezbollah come on the heels of new U.S. sanctions on the group that many fear will impact negatively on the Lebanese economy. Hariri has frequently called on the group to withdraw its fighters from Syria. "I declare my resignation from the premiership of the Lebanese government, with the certainty that the will of the Lebanese is strong," Hariri said.
"When I took office, I promised you that I would seek to unite the Lebanese and end political division... But unfortunately, this pushed Iran and its allies to more interference in our internal affairs," he said.
Earlier this week, Saudi State Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan sharply criticized Hezbollah, calling for its "toppling" and promising "astonishing developments" in the coming days during an interview with the Lebanese TV station MTV.
Al-Sabhan met with Hariri in Saudi Arabia when the now resigned prime minister was visiting earlier this week. Hariri abruptly returned to the kingdom again on Friday after a meeting in Beirut with Ali-Akbar Velayati, foreign adviser to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader. In tweets after meeting Hariri, al-Sabhan criticized the Lebanese government for tolerating Hezbollah's criticism of the kingdom.