Saudis gamble on Hariri resignation to check Iranian grip on Lebanon

"Saudi Arabia is more concerned than Israel about Iran."

Saad Hariri walks with Saudi Arabia's Prince Khaled al-Faisal in Beirut, Lebanon November 21, 2016.  (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
Saad Hariri walks with Saudi Arabia's Prince Khaled al-Faisal in Beirut, Lebanon November 21, 2016.
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
Saad Hariri's apparently Saudi-dictated resignation as prime minister of Lebanon is the latest effort by Riyadh in its losing struggle to combat Iranian influence in the region.
Hariri announced his resignation Saturday in Saudi Arabia, citing a plot to assassinate him and blasting Hezbollah and Iran for their destructive role in Lebanon and other Arab countries
But in order to understand the actual dynamics leading to Hariri's resignation, it is necessary to keep in mind how he, backed by Riyadh like his assassinated father, came to be prime minister to begin with only a year ago.
It was through a deal between enemies he struck with Iran-backed Hezbollah. According  to the deal, staunch Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun became president, while Hariri was appointed prime minister of a unity cabinet including nearly all of Lebanon's main parties. Hariri hoped he could represent the interests of the Sunni Muslim community and that his cabinet could restore governance and stability to Lebanon.
In the early part of his term, Hariri staked out an independent position, clashing with Aoun by calling for the disarmament of Hezbollah, whose political wing was a participant in his government. But over time, he acquiesced on this key issue, and Aoun's stance that Hezbollah arms are essential to defending Lebanon from Israel prevailed.
He was also seen as giving in to Hezbollah interests on budgetary issues. More recently, as noted by Eldad Shavit, senior analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, Hariri went along with Hezbollah's insistence that a Lebanese ambassador be posted to Damascus, something that legitimized the Iranian-backed Assad regime and thus was a setback to Saudi interests.
"The Saudis felt that Hariri was not delivering and that Hezbollah and Iran were using [the governing arrangement] for their interest," said Shavit. "They felt he was not preventing their agenda and that he was influenced by Hezbollah and Iran."
Moreover, having Hariri as prime minister gave legitimacy to Aoun and to Hezbollah even as they held the real power. "To the extent that Lebanon works and functions, Hezbollah derives legitimacy from being part of that," said Brandon Friedman, a scholar at Tel Aviv University's Dayan Center. "As Hezbollah matured and played a more integral role in governance, it wanted to be seen as creating the means for a stronger, more effective Lebanon. Putting together a coalition that served Hezbollah's interest in governance legitimized it."
In Friedman's view, "Hariri's resignation can be viewed as the opening volley of Saudi Arabia to challenge Hezbollah's dominance in Lebanon. The message to Hezbollah is that Lebanon is not going to be Iraq or Syria, that Hezbollah dominance and Iranian primacy won't be permitted without a challenge."
By ordering Hariri to step down, the Saudis may be trying to create chaos in Lebanon in the hopes this will harm Hezbollah, Shavit said. "They hope a chaotic situation and difficulties assembling a government will limit Hezbollah's ability to maneuver and to achieve its objectives."
Hariri's resignation makes it more difficult for the creation of a coalition that allows Hezbollah the decisive voice, while at the same time paying lip service to other interests in Lebanon, Friedman said. "If Lebanon goes back to no functioning government and Hezbollah and Iran are seen as responsible for that, that damages the legitimacy of Hezbollah in Lebanon."
But in the view of Hebrew University scholar Yusri Hazran, it is doubtful that the Saudi gambit will succeed in really setting back Hezbollah, because it is simply too powerful in Lebanon. The Shiites are the largest community in Lebanon, they make up 40% of the population. "Hezbollah is an organization with military power stronger than the Lebanese army, and the new development is that Hezbollah has some control over the Lebanese military," he said.
"Saudi Arabia is trying to block Iranian influence in Lebanon, as in Yemen, but it's a lost cause," he said, stressing that Iran has the upper hand over Riyadh in the battle for regional primacy with governments it backs in Iraq and Syria. Yemen's fate is still being battled out. "Saudi Arabia is more concerned than Israel about Iran," he said.
The election of Aoun last year was a telling indicator that the Shiite community controls access to political power in Lebanon, which Hazran called "the Shia republic."
"The Saudis want to create a situation of political crisis, to break the political stability in Lebanon so that Hezbollah will be more busy in Lebanese internal politics than in Syria," he said. "But I'm not sure this will be achieved."
It is hard to predict how Hariri's resignation will effect Israeli interests. "If the Saudis are right and it limits Hezbollah and Iran, Israel will gain. But if the Saudis fail and Hezbollah strengthens its position and has more room to maneuver, we will lose," said Shavit.
Hazran said: "I'm not sure this will effect Israel. Israel is not interested in escalation in the near future, and the same is true of Hezbollah. Hezbollah's first priority is to achieve victory in Syria, to make sure the Ba'ath regime prevails there."