Saad Hariri unexpectedly resigned as Prime Minister of Lebanon this past Saturday, citing Iran’s influence in his country and across the Middle East, whilst also claiming he feared the same fate as late father, Rafik Hariri who was assassinated in 2005. His speech, which was broadcast from the Saudi Arabia, specifically accused Iran of wanting to “destroy the Arab world” and boasting “of its control of the decisions in all the Arab capitals. Hezbollah imposed a reality in Lebanon through force of arms, and their intervention causes us big problems with all our Arab allies.” Iran and its followers, he said, will “lose in its interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” These words and the resignation itself have caught many observers by surprise, including Mr Hariri’s government and staff back in Beirut. It also, effectively brings to an end an uneasy 11-month unity-government that had largely failed to impose authority on a parliament split along regional lines. Of the followers in question, Mr Harriri was most certainly referring to Hezbollah, a Shiite militant-turned-political group, with he shared power as part of the aforementioned unity-government. In a country which is already plagued by corruption and a poorly-performing economy, news of the resignation will do little to dispel fears of further instability.
To make matters worse, the timing and location of the announcement has led some observers to suggest that other factors (beyond the ones listed by Mr Hariri in his televised speech) may be behind the surprise move from the now-former Lebanese Prime Minister. In light of the fact that the announcement took place amid growing tensions between Saudi Arabia—Mr Hariri’s backers—and its regional rival Iran, that notion doesn’t seem too farfetched. Crucially, it has been said that the US and its allies in the Middle East now fear that Iran is months away from securing unprecedented influence in the region, owing to its military victories against ISIS in recent times. Bearing in mind that the resignation speech takes place amid growing anti-Iran rhetoric from the Trump administration. All of which is worsened by a recent leak of declassified CIA documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s hideout in 2011, appearing to suggest Iranian-al Qaeda collusion. Taken all together, these facts lend credence to the argument that Lebanon could now become battleground between pro and anti-Iran alliances.
And things are likely to heat up considering some of the language being used by some officials in the region. For example, Thamer al-Sabhan, the Saudi minister for Gulf Affairs (who is a vocal critic of Iran) tweeted: “The hands of treachery and aggression will be cut off.” This was shortly after the televised announcement was made. Similarly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, joined the chorus, calling Mr Hariri’s resignation a “wake up call for the international community to take action against the Iranian government.” The latter’s comments, it should be noted, come a few days after he warned that Israel was prepared for confrontation to ensure Iran did not have room to “Lebanon-ise Syria economically and militarily.” Israel, owing to its geography and history with Lebanon, has a keen interest in seeing Iran play a more limited role in that country and in the region as a whole. It is also acutely aware of the strategic gains made by Iran in Syria, in addition to its involvement in proxy-wars in Yemen. Much like Saudi Arabia, it may see events in Lebanon as enough of a justification to engage in military confrontation
Meanwhile in Iran, the response has also been one of defiance—unsurprising given the level of rhetoric that all sides have been engaged in over the past few months. Hossein Sheikholeslam, an adviser to Iran’s Foreign Ministry, who was quoted by Iranian news agency Fars, claimed that Mr Hariri’s resignation “was planned by the Americans to make up for their losses after ISIL was defeated in the region.” Another Iranian official, Bahram Ghasemi, disputed Mr Hariri’s allegations against Iran, calling them “unreal and baseless”, while adding that his resignation was “designed to create tensions in Lebanon and the region.” The belief, implied in Mr Ghasemi’s comments, that Mr Hariri’s decision was in some way orchestrated by his Saudi-backers, appears to be shared by some observers who see this development as a way of shattering the outwardly appearance of a unified (some would say, Hezbollah-dominated) government, headed by Hariri who is himself a Sunni Muslim.
In the meantime, it remains to be seen what happens in Lebanon, with the current Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, expected to hold consultations with Parliament about appointing a caretaker government. How he goes about this will have a significant impact on a country whose history has been shaped by civil wars, political instability, and high-profile assassinations of Lebanese political figures. Eyes will be firmly placed on the selection process, especially if it results in the ascension of a pro-Hezbollah government, which would have severe political and economic consequences for the country. The US for example, could decide to impose sanctions on the country, since it has, in the past, designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. The likelihood of a conflict along its southern border is a possibility, with many fearing a repeat of the 2006 confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah. The fact that Hezbollah has played a significant role in helping to take back ISIL-controlled territory in Syria, seems to be of little importance to the anti-Iranian/Hezbollah alliance. Worse yet, it seems to have heightened the level of anti-Iranian sentiment, considering how much political and military influence Tehran may now gain across three countries—Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. For Lebanon, it seems clears, that one of the immediate consequences of that growing influence has been imperilment of its political, social and economic stability.