Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, September 2017.

Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, September 2017.

On Saturday, November 4th, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned from his post in the coalition government, citing concerns about his personal safety. Speaking from Saudi Arabia, Hariri expressed distrust in the militant Shiite party Hezbollah, and condemned Iran for meddling in regional affairs and sowing discord in Lebanon.

In 2016, Hariri’s nomination as Prime Minister was considered the first breakthrough in a two-year political deadlock between the country’s primary religious factions; now, his resignation threatens to destabilize the country’s fragile power balance, opening a vulnerable Lebanon to a surging tide of foreign interests.

A Long Time Coming

The power-sharing National Pact in Lebanon stipulates that the country’s president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. As a general rule, , Lebanese Sunnis are politically sympathetic towards Saudi Arabia; its Shia affiliated with Hezbollah are deeply intertwined with Iran; and its Maronite Christians have historically favored the West. These split loyalties have often made Lebanon a battleground for international powers.

The 2016 government was able to overcome these divisions, but only to a very limited extent. Hariri, a Sunni Muslim in favor of Saudi Arabia and opposed to Hezbollah, supported Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun’s bid for the presidency in an effort to end political deadlock and fill the two-year presidential vacancy. Now, with Hariri’s resignation, it is all the more clear that the relationship was, at most, one of convenience.

Hariri’s resignation took place in Saudi Arabia and evinced a clear anti-Iranian sentiment, a consequence of Lebanon’s role as a base for Iranian aggression.  Saudi Arabia has protested Iranian influence in Lebanon, and pushed for an end to Hezbollah activity. Saudi Arabia is further incensed by the role of pro-Iranian Hezbollah fighters in supporting the Syrian Assad regime, which it opposes. Hezbollah has gained power in recent years and contributed to regional destabilization, through its aggressive support of Assad and provocations of Israel. These actions have also accompanied Iranian deployments of ground forces and military manufacturing in both Syria and Lebanon. The culminating effect has been one of Iranian expansion into Syria and Lebanon, threatening Saudi Arabia’s regional dominance.

Iranian supporters, for their part, have accused Saudi Arabia of holding Hariri hostage, and on the same day as Hariri’s announcement, Iranian-supported Houthi militias in Yemen fired a missile in the direction of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Iran’s foreign ministry has called Hariri’s resignation a Saudi ploy to tip the power balance within the region and create discord. While Saudi Arabia sees Hezbollah as an Iranian puppet, Iran portrays Saudi Arabia as intransigent  and unwilling to compromise.

Hariri’s resignation indicates that the interests of the dominant Hezbollah faction and pro-Saudi Sunni parties were never truly balanced under the coalition government. Both have consistently pulled Lebanon in opposing directions, creating a climate of instability and distrust within the country. While Hezbollah has gained power, Saudi Arabia has strengthened ties with the United States and pushed back against Iranian dominance. Lebanese Sunni militants have fought on behalf of Syrian rebels, and Hezbollah has supported Assad. Hariri’s resignation indicates the inability of these diverse political elements to reach a consensus regarding the country’s future.

Moving Forward

Hariri’s return is the primary priority for Lebanon. The terms of his resignation have not been defined, concerns of Saudi Arabia’s involvement have added fuel to the fire. Lebanon now faces with the daunting task of preserving the stability of its government. Undoubtedly, the divisions between Saudi and Iranian interests will dominate the discussion, but there is no clear path for Lebanon to follow.

The dominance and military force behind Hezbollah make it impossible to ignore in negotiations, but Hariri’s resignation has also created a new mandate for Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States to crack down on Iranian interference and reduce Hezbollah influence. Nor can the role of Lebanon’s sectarian culture and political system be dismissed. The divisions between the country’s Sunni, Shiite, and Christian groups are an unavoidable source of conflict that will continue to provide sources of aggression until balance can be attained.

More importantly, Hariri’s resignation has opened Lebanon to new vulnerabilities. There is no longer even a pretense of a unified government in the country; nor do popular sentiments favor compromise. Now, any political direction is fair game. Whether Lebanon will align more closely with Iran—as the political leanings of current President Anou suggest—or turn towards Saudi Arabia is unclear. As Middle Eastern politics increasingly pit Iranian dominance against Saudi interests, this fork in the road could be an important turning point, but it remains to be seen in which direction.

Image Credit: of Russia

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