Saudi Arabia vs. Iran

What role do Lebanon and Israel play in the conflict?

French President Emmanuel Macron (center) welcomes Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris, on November 18 (photo credit: BENOIT TESSIER /REUTERS)
French President Emmanuel Macron (center) welcomes Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris, on November 18
THE DRAMATIC U-turn by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, withdrawing his resignation from office, left Lebanon facing an uncertain political future as the intense regional power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran rages on.
His November 4 resignation, announced during a trip to Saudi Arabia, raised fears in Jerusalem that Israel may be drawn into a conflict if hostilities result in Lebanon. However, after returning home on No- vember 21 following brief visits to France, Egypt and Cyprus, Hariri declared that he had accepted the request from Lebanese President Michel Aoun to “suspend his res- ignation pending further consultations.” Hariri, a Sunni Muslim who holds joint Lebanese-Saudi citizenship, spoke from the Presidential Palace in Lebanon during celebrations of the country’s Independence Day. He said the country required “excep- tional effort from everyone” at this time in order to “protect it in confronting dangers and challenges.”
He also reiterated the need to remain com- mitted to Lebanon’s policy of “dissociation regarding wars, external struggles, regional disputes and everything that harms internal stability” – an apparent reference to the ac- tivities of Hezbollah, Iran’s Shi’ite proxy, which plays a prominent role in the Beirut national unity government formed by Hariri last year.
Jerusalem stressed that while it will act to stem Iran’s growing influence in the region, it was not seeking a military showdown with Hezbollah, at this juncture. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu de- scribed al-Hariri’s move as a “wake-up call” for the world on Iran's attempted takeover of the Middle East.
“He [Hariri] said basically it’s because Hezbollah took over, which means Iran took over. And I think this is a wake-up call for everyone,” Netanyahu said. “When Is- raelis and the Arabs, all the Arabs, agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover.”
In his televised announcement from Ri- yadh, Hariri accused Iran of sowing “dis- cord, devastation and destruction” in the region. He accused Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, which is part of a national unity government that Hariri formed last year, of destabilizing his nation.
Hariri also said he feared for his life. “We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assas- sination of martyr Rafik Hariri” — Saad’s father, a former prime minister who was assassinated in 2005, allegedly by Hezbol- lah. “I am aware of what is being plotted to target my life,” he said.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun refused to accept the resignation, accusing the Saudis of initially holding Hariri against his will. The Saudis and Hariri denied this. The Shi’ite Hezbollah, a political party as well as a powerful armed force, is Iran’s most powerful ally. Hezbollah has fought two wars with Israel and Tehran has drawn heavily on its battle-hardened fighters in other regional conflicts – Syria especially, where the group has suffered an estimated 1,500 fatalities – as well as Iraq and Yemen. In a reconciliatory gesture designed to maintain the precarious, religious-based status quo that prevails in Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech that he still considered Hariri prime minister and that his organization was “open to any dialogue and any discussing that happens” in the country. He also denied sending arms to Yemen and other Arab states, and said he could pull Hezbollah forces out of Iraq once Islamic State was defeated.
There is no doubt that Hariri’s resignation, if not forced by the Saudis, was certainly coordinated with them. Saudi Minister of State for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan, a bitter critic of Iran and Hezbollah, called for the toppling of Hezbollah a few days before Hariri’s announcement, saying that anyone cooperating with the organization must be punished.
Predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran are bitter enemies, fighting a number of regnal conflicts via proxy militias. Recent Iranian gains across the Middle East have set the alarm bells ringing in Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia has failed to quell the Houthi insurgency in neighboring Yemen, despite intervening militarily in 2015 and despite the billions of dollars Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has invested in the campaign against the Iranian-backed fighters.
Riyadh believes that Hezbollah members have armed and trained the Houthis, and were behind the firing of the missile on Riyadh airport that was intercepted on the night that Hariri resigned. Bin Salman said Iran's supply of rockets to Houthi militias was an act of “direct military aggression.”
Iran and Hezbollah also played a decisive role in defeating the Islamic State and Saudi-backed militias in Syria. The victory of the Iraqi regime over Islamic State, along with the recent recapture of Kirkuk from Kurdish fighters, was also considered a major boost for Teheran, which has successfully spread its influence in the country since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Iran is now close to achieving its strategic objective of controlling a land corridor all the way to the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus.
Following Hariri’s resignation, Riyadh ordered its citizens out of Lebanon and threatened to teach Nasrallah a lesson he will not forget.
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said his government would treat Lebanon as a hostile state as long as Hezbollah was in the government, describing Hezbollah’s participation in the Lebanese government as an “act of war” against Saudi Arabia.
Arab League foreign ministers, meeting in Cairo on November 19, criticized Iran and Hezbollah, saying Tehran was destabilizing the region.
“We are not declaring war on Iran at this stage,” Arab League chief Ahmed Aboul-Gheit said, warning that “Iranian threats” were pushing the region toward the abyss. “Maybe the next stage would be for us to meet and call for a UN Security Council meeting and submit a draft Arab resolution [against Iran].”
Kuwaiti newspaper Al Rai reported that Hezbollah went on high alert across Lebanon.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani accused Saudi officials of making a strategic mistake by considering the US and Israel as allies. He said Washington and Jerusalem were trying to dominate the region to “plunder its oil and wealth.”
Israel and Saudi Arabia have never maintained diplomatic relations and this is unlikely to change without significant progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace track. However, Israel’s Intelligence and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz confirmed covert ties with Riyadh, citing shared concerns over Iran as the main area of cooperation.
“It’s the other side that is interested in keeping the ties quiet. With us, usually, there is no problem, but we respect the other side’s wish when ties are developing, whether it’s with Saudi Arabia or with other Arab countries or other Muslim countries, and there is much more... [but] we keep it secret,” he told Army Radio.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot took an important step toward strengthening the unofficial alliance in mid- November when he became the highest-ranking Israeli officer to give an interview to a Saudi-owned media outlet.
In his interview with the Saudi newspaper, Elaph, Eizenkot stressed the need for coordinated operations to prevent Iran from spreading its hold in the region, stressing that he agreed with every word the head of the Saudi military said during a recent meeting in Washington of international chiefs of staff.
He also stated his willingness to share intelligence with the Saudis. “We are ready to exchange experience and intelligence information with Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries to confront Iran,” he said.
Israel’s Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said he believes now is the time to take a stand against Iranian actions in the region, including its support for Hezbollah. In particular, he said that Israel wants the world, after years of inaction, to tightly enforce a 2006 cease-fire agreement following the Second Lebanon War that called on Hezbollah to disarm and stay away from Israel's border.
Katz said changing circumstances make the time ripe for an Israeli diplomatic initiative.
He cited the strong support for Israel by the Trump administration, the international jockeying for influence as the Syrian civil war reaches its end game and what he called Israel's “shared interests” with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries, which also feel threatened by Iran.
Hariri’s resignation and its aftermath placed Lebanon at the forefront of the Riyadh-Tehran power struggle. Israel is not a party to the Sunni-Shi’ite conflict dividing the Muslim word, but it is clear that Jerusalem’s interests at this juncture are identical to those of the royal family in Riyadh. Israel has no desire to go to war for the Saudis in Lebanon – or Syria – but the danger exists that it could be dragged into the fighting if Riyadh’s new aggressive stance against Iran deteriorates into conflict.