Lebanon prime minister Hariri resigns, criticising Iran influence

Saad Hariri made his announcement from the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh after travelling there from Beirut on Friday. It was his second trip to the kingdom in less than a week

FILE - This Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016 file photo, Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri reacts after he announced his support to the Christian leader Michel Aoun to be Lebanese president, in Beirut, Lebanon. Hariri resigned from his post Saturday, Nov 4, 2017 during a trip to Saudi Arabia in a surprise move that plunged the country into uncertainty amid heightened regional tensions. (Hussein Malla, File)
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Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation on Saturday, citing fear of assassination and sharply criticising Iranian influence in Lebanon and the wider region.

Mr Hariri made his announcement from the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh after travelling there from Beirut on Friday. It was his second trip to the kingdom in less than a week.

“Iran’s hands in the region will be cut off,” Mr Hariri said in a video statement, which appeared to be broadcast first by the Saudi-owned news channel Al Arabiya.

“Wherever Iran is involved, there is nothing but devastation and chaos.”

“Iran has a strong desire to destroy the Arab world,” he added.

Mr Hariri left for Saudi Arabia after meeting in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, the senior adviser for foreign affairs to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Afterwards, Mr Velayati described the meeting as "good, positive, constructive and practical", according to Mr Hariri's office.

"[T]he Iranian-Lebanese relations are always constructive and Iran always supports and protects Lebanon's independence, force and government,” he added.


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In his resignation statement on Saturday, Mr Hariri also singled out Hizbollah, the Lebanese political party and militia that receives Iranian backing and has historically been at odds with Mr Hariri and his Future Movement.

“The intervention of Hizbollah caused us problems with our Arab neighbourhood,” he said, referring to the militia’s support of the Syrian government in the country’s six-year-old civil war. As Hizbollah’s role in Syria increased, its fighting force and regional influence have expanded.

It is now up to Lebanese president Michel Aoun to appoint a new prime minister, but the resignation is likely to cause political gridlock. Lebanon’s parliament will have trouble forming a government without the participation of the Future Movement, Mr Hariri’s political party.

Along with the United States, the Saudi government has been increasingly vocal about Iran’s influence in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq where both governments are allies of Tehran and where Iran has increased its sway amid fighting. In Syria, Saudi Arabia and the US have funded militias that have fought the government and its allies.

In Yemen, meanwhile, Riyadh accuses Iran of supporting the Houthi rebel movement, which a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting on behalf of the Yemeni government since 2015. The UAE is also part of the coalition.

Mr Hariri appeared to take the same line towards Iran as Riyadh on Saturday.

“Iran controls the region and the decision-making in both Syria and Iraq,” Mr Hariri said. “The evil that Iran sends to the region will eventually backfire on Tehran.”

Amal Saad, a professor of political science at Lebanese University, said Mr Hariri's resignation was Saudi Arabia's way of "curtailing Iran and Hizbollah’s influence in the region”.

“It’s definitely something that benefits Saudi, not the Future Movement,” she added.

Mr Hariri has strong political and personal ties to Riyadh, which has long been a supporter of Lebanon’s Sunni community.

Not only does he hold Saudi citizenship but his wife, Lama Bashir-Azm, who is of Syrian origin, and their three children have lived in the kingdom during his time in Lebanon.

Mr Hariri's resignation comes as the ongoing expulsion of ISIL from the Syrian-Iraqi border has created a long-feared land route between Iran and Hizbollah.


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What Saudi Arabia is "calling a Shia corridor is basically secured now, and that has been something they’ve been lobbying against for a long time now, as well as the US” Ms Saad said.

Iran reacted to Mr Hariri's resignation on Saturday by saying it would create "tension" in Lebanon and the region.

"But we believe that the resistant people of Lebanon will pass this stage easily," added Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi.

In his statement on Saturday, Mr Hariri also referenced the assassination of his father, former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, who was killed by a massive bomb in downtown Beirut in 2005.

“We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assassination of the martyr Rafik Al Hariri. I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life,” Mr Hariri said.

Many Lebanese blame the Syrian government for ordering the attack that killed Rafik Hariri, and a United Nations-backed international tribunal created to investigate the murder has indicted members of Hizbollah on accusations that they planned and carried out the bombing.

Saad Hariri followed in his father’s footsteps as prime minister, beginning his first term in 2009. His government was brought down in 2011 when Hizbollah ministers withdrew from the cabinet after a disagreement over the legitimacy of the special tribunal and its indictments for members of Hizbollah, four of whom are currently being tried in absentia in the case, which remains ongoing.

When Mr Hariri became prime minister again late last year, political and military developments in Lebanon and in Syria forced him into an accommodation with his rival Hizbollah. The group's political clout has grown since the Syrian government gained the upper-hand in the war there and since Hizbollah helped to drive militant groups, including ISIL, out of Lebanon earlier this year.

Tensions between Riyadh and Beirut rose earlier this week after a Saudi minister levelled criticism at the Lebanese government for tolerating Hizbollah’s presence and weapons. Today, the movement is the only political party in Lebanon that maintains a standing militia. Although it has widespread representation in the government it is considered a terrorist group by the US and Saudi Arabia.

Thamer Al Sabhan, the Saudi minister of state and Arab Gulf affairs, criticised the Lebanese government on Twitter on Sunday for its “silence” regarding Hizbollah’s role in the country. The next day he went further, telling Sky News Arabia that Riyadh was "determined to take all deterrent means to Hizbollah".

“We know that [the Lebanese] are under the occupation of the militia of Hizbollah, a satanic militia,” he added in a separate interview with Lebanese station MTV.

“Those who believe that my tweets are a personal stance are delusional and they will see what will happen in the coming days,” he said, promising "astonishing developments".

Mr Hariri travelled to the kingdom later on Monday and met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, as well as Mr Al Sabhan.

* With additional reporting by Reuters