Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri resigned suddenly on Saturday, fearing an assassination plot against him and accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.
“I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life,” Hariri said in a televised broadcast from an undisclosed location in Saudi Arabia.
He also had harsh words for Iran’s interference in his country, saying: “I point very clearly to Iran, which spreads destruction and strife wherever it is, and witness to that its interventions in the internal matters of the Arab countries, in Lebanon and Syria and Bahrain and Yemen.”
His resignation brought down the coalition government and plunged Lebanon into a new political crisis, returning it to the front line of a regional competition between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran that also has buffeted Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.
It also risks exacerbating sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and returning Lebanon to paralysis in government.
Such instability in Lebanon poses new threats to Israel’s already tense northern border, where it has been working to block Iran from setting up military bases on the Syrian side. Israel is also buffering threats on two other fronts: ISIS in Sinai and Hamas in Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hariri’s resignation and his harsh critique of Iran should be “a wake-up call to the international community to take action against the Iranian aggression that is trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon.”
He added: “This aggression endangers not only Israel but the entire Middle East. The international community needs to unite and confront this aggression.”
Netanyahu issued his statement from London, where he has spoken privately with British leaders and publicly about Iran’s aggressive and destabilizing actions in the region.
On Friday at Chatham House, Netanyahu said: “Iran is devouring one nation after the other. It is doing so either by direct conquest, but more usually by using proxies.” He gave Hezbollah in Lebanon as an example.
In his televised addressed, Hariri said the climate in Lebanon was similar to the atmosphere in 2005 when his father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, was assassinated.
“Based on my own beliefs and principles that I inherited from my late father, martyred Rafik al-Hariri, and the principles of the Cedar Revolution, I announce that I do not agree to disappoint the Lebanese and agree to what opposes these principles and, as such, I announce my resignation from the prime minister’s position of Lebanon,” the younger Hariri said.
The resignation introduces crisis to Lebanese politics when it can least afford it; the country is hosting more than 1 million Syrian refugees, who constitute an estimated 30% of Lebanon’s population.
In July, Hariri went to Washington to meet US President Donald Trump and seek continued American support for the Lebanese army and Lebanon.
Trump pulled no punches in his words for Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon, calling it a “menace to the Lebanese state, people and region” and claiming that it continues to “increase its military arsenal which threatens Israel.”
Trump’s comments presaged the policy his administration ostensibly introduced in October to confront and roll back Iranian influence in the region. During the July meeting with Hariri, Trump claimed that Hezbollah fuels “a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. It portrays itself as a defender of Lebanese interests, but its true interest is itself and its sponsor, Iran.”
Hariri likely agreed with most of Trump’s comments, but kept his views on Hezbollah to himself.
Although Israel’s views on Hezbollah dovetail with Saudi Arabia’s and Hariri’s, the common feeling of threat from Iran does not manifest itself in open dialogue.
Now, in Saudi Arabia, Hariri has castigated Hezbollah for how it spreads Iranian influence in the region.
Iran is “driven by a deep hatred for the Arab nation and strong desire to destroy it and control it and, unfortunately, it has found among our fellow countrymen those who put their hands in its hands,” Hariri said.
He warned that the Arab world would “cut off the hands that wickedly extend to it.”
In retrospect, his recent Twitter activity seems a clear lead-up to Saturday’s decision.
On October 31, he posted a photo with Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, claiming that the meeting reassured him that the “Saudi leadership [is] on the same page on stability with Lebanon and Arabism.”
Since that meeting, Hariri has spoken about economic issues relating to Lebanon and the Middle East. The Saudi Arabia-Hariri connection goes back to his birth in Riyadh, where his father worked as a teacher and in the construction industry.
Saudi Arabia helped end the Lebanese civil war, brokering the Taif Agreement in 1989. It has seen itself as a guarantor of the rights of Sunnis in Lebanon, and more broadly seeking to keep Lebanon in the moderate Arab camp in the region.
Considering the current US strategy to confront Iran in the region and Saudi Arabia’s own blockade of Qatar in cooperation with Gulf allies, the likelihood of action against Lebanon is surely in the cards. Lebanese politicians will have to decide what to do next.
Reuters contributed to this report.