The Lebanese Powder Keg
When Saad Hariri resigned his post as prime minister of Lebanon last week, the move surprised even his closest associates. The normally soft-spoken premier lashed out at Iran and Hezbollah, accusing them of plotting his assassination, and vowing that the region’s reawakened Arabs would “cut off” Tehran’s arms. The unusual resignation came amid internal upheavals within Saudi Arabia and escalating Saudi-Iranian tensions over Lebanon and Yemen, fueling speculation that all were somehow related. Below is context on what happened and analysis for what comes next for the key players in the dispute after a transformational week in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s shock over Hariri’s resignation is beginning to subside. Lebanese politicians are affirming their commitment to maintaining calm and stability. As things stand, Hariri’s former cabinet will continue functioning, but as a caretaker government and, critically, parliamentary elections remain on schedule for May 2018. However, the affirmations of national unity are already being punctured with acrimony along traditional political fault-lines, as fear of instability and war with Israel grip the Lebanese street. Pro-Western politicians are attacking Hezbollah, while the group and its allies are denouncing Riyadh. The country also seems split on the threat of assassination to Hariri. The Lebanese Armed Forces and Internal Security Forces deny knowledge of it, and Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk and the Future Party say that’s because it was communicated directly to Hariri by Western intelligence.
- Souring Relations between Saad Hariri and Michel Aoun
Hariri resigned because of Iranian dominance of Lebanon via Hezbollah and the group’s allies, not Saudi pressure. Indeed, the Saudis recently appointed a new ambassador to Beirut, though he has yet to take up his post.
The key to understanding Hariri’s motives was his remark that Iran now controlled Lebanon’s critical “power junctures” and possessed “the final and deciding word in the affairs of Lebanon and the Lebanese.” He was doubtlessly referring to Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s (and his entire political camp’s) deafening silence two weeks ago when Hassan Rouhani undermined Lebanese sovereignty by boasting of Iran’s control over Beirut’s decision-making. This factor, perhaps more than any prior act by the Lebanese president, demonstrated how compromised Aoun was by his alliance with Hezbollah, placing it above his duties to the republic.
Aoun’s dereliction of his duty as president – even as Hariri and March 14 responded in anger to Rouhani – had a personal dimension for the prime minister. It was Hariri’s endorsement that secured the presidency for Aoun, after he’d already crossed the aisle once before and endorsed Sleiman Frangieh – another March 8 candidate that many consider worse than Aoun given his ideological, rather than opportunistic, support for Syria and Hezbollah. Frangieh even preferred Aoun’s loyalists for critical cabinet positions, including in the Foreign, Defense, and Justice Ministry, over his own allies in March 8.
Hariri took a chance on Aoun in the hope Aoun would place Lebanon’s interests first and that it would end the political vacuum causing continued stagnation in the country. But Aoun’s recent failure to defend Lebanese sovereignty made clear to Hariri and March 14 that their gamble had failed. Within a week of Rouhani’s comments, Hariri was in Saudi Arabia to meet with its Minister for Gulf Affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan, who had just launched another scathing attack on Hezbollah. Hariri returned to Lebanon in good spirits, and spoke optimistically about bilateral relations with the Kingdom, but in retrospect his equanimity was a veneer.
The final straw for Hariri appears to have been his meeting last Friday in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s senior foreign policy advisor. Whatever transpired within that meeting remains unclear. However, Velayati emerged to attack Hariri’s American allies and stress Iran’s guardianship over Lebanon’s stability, lumping Beirut into the Iranian-dominated “Resistance Axis.” Hariri abruptly returned to Saudi Arabia immediately after the meeting for a “work trip,” and announced his resignation the next day.
- Hezbollah After Hariri
Whether Hariri is giving up on Lebanon or strategically retreating from the political scene remains unclear. At the very least, he no longer wishes to provide political cover for Hezbollah and its allies undermining Lebanon’s interests and sovereignty. In response, Hezbollah, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah delivered a conciliatory, but ultimately self-serving – speech in which he refused to respond to Hariri’s attacks on Hezbollah and absolved Hariri of blame. Instead, he echoed claims by several Iranian officials and attacked Saudi Arabia, claiming Hariri was being held hostage in the kingdom and that they had forced him to attack Hezbollah. He also stated that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince had forced Hariri’s resignation as part of the purges underway in the Kingdom. By placing the blame squarely on Riyadh, Nasrallah was trying to absolve his group from blame for whatever crisis or difficulties Lebanon would face in the future.
Some have read this as a victory speech by Nasrallah. However, it is equally likely that his calm demeanor, reassurances of responsible action, and lack of his characteristic fiery attacks on Saudi Arabia, indicated Hariri’s move had put Nasrallah and his party in a precarious position. Particularly telling of Nasrallah’s lack of confidence was his plea to avoid exploiting the opportunity to escalate against Hezbollah.
Hariri had proven his willingness and ability to compromise for Lebanon’s sake, crossing the political aisle and even crowning Hezbollah’s preferred candidate as president. No one could accuse him of obstruction, and even Nasrallah admitted his satisfaction with the Prime Minister’s performance. But Hariri’s resignation laid bare Hezbollah’s lack of reciprocity. After Hariri’s appointment, t the group became more vocal in their allegiance to Iran, refused to disarm or withdraw from Syria, and continued to threaten Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other regional countries even as the threat of American sanctions or Israeli war loomed larger over Lebanon. Hezbollah had proven that no negative consequence for Lebanon – not even the threat of renewed war and massive destruction – was great enough for them to back down or compromise on even a single issue.
Now that Hariri’s hands are washed of Aoun and Hezbollah, he could once again regain the legitimacy to rebuild his Sunni support base, repositioning himself at the head of March 14 and challenging the organization anew. Curiously, MP Ahmad Fatfat, speaking on behalf of his Future Party, and the Lebanese Forces’ Samir Geagea jointly stated that – even after his resignation – Hariri remains their only choice for prime minister. Coupled with rumors that Saudi Arabia is trying to reassemble March 14 under his leadership and relaunch the Cedar Revolution, Nasrallah has reason for concern.
His tone regarding Hezbollah certainly signaled confrontation – calling the organization the loyal “arm of Iran” and later saying Iran’s “arms will be cut.” They key battleground could be Lebanon’s May 2018 Parliamentary elections. Hariri’s Future Party is already parliament’s largest. By regaining his Sunni legitimacy, and with a Saudi push reinvigorating March 14, he could hold or increase that lead. Reports that Hariri has dispatched representatives from his Future Party abroad to convince Lebanese expatriates to vote in the upcoming elections strengthen that possibility.
- Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri's Power Play
Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri is another critical actor to consider. His Amal Party forms the second (and larger) half of the “Shiite Duo” encompassing Hezbollah, allowing the Khomeinist group to artificially enlarge its influence in parliament and the cabinet. However, despite mutual professions of fealty and genuine concern for Lebanese Shiites, the two parties have little in common. Berri and Amal are in fact old enemies of Hezbollah and, as Lebanese nationalists, lack any ideological common-ground with the Iranian proxy. Despite both championing Shiite interests, they differ on what that means, and there is no love lost between their followers.
Given that stance, there’s a possibility Berri could be wooed away from Hezbollah and towards Saad Hariri, as the two have seen eye-to-eye on several issues in the past. For example, Hariri and Berri both endorsed Sleiman Frangieh as president over Hezbollah’s ally Aoun, and a month ago met in Walid Joumblatt’s house to complain about Lebanon’s Hezbollah-allied foreign minister. That’s not to mention Berri expressing his support for Hariri on Wednesday, claiming the prime minister “has been wronged.”
Berri may also have been previously informed of Hariri’s decision to resign, perhaps the reason why he didn’t return immediately from his trip to Egypt. He also made a point to deny rumors by pro-Hezbollah Al-Akhbar that he and Egypt’s President al-Sisi had discussed the possibility that Hariri was under house arrest in Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, it is worth noting that while Berri didn’t return from Egypt immediately, he did cut his trip short. Additionally, he has voiced support for Aoun’s refusal to accept Hariri’s resignation until he returns to Lebanon, calling it a “noise bomb.” Moreover, despite expressing his personal affection for Hariri, Berri said his loyalty to Lebanon takes precedence, and declared the prime minister’s resignation “unconstitutional.”
The View from the Region
Israel’s role in all of this is perhaps the easiest to discern, that of a cautious but entirely passive participant-after-the-fact. Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon makes it a country of particular concern for the Jewish state, but that should not be taken to mean it will exploit the situation to launch an unprovoked war against the group. Not only would that be a violation of international law – which Israel and its army abide by – but it would also squander the international support necessary to delay a ceasefire and deal Hezbollah a decisive blow. Hezbollah currently has no intention to start that war, and Nasrallah even subtly tried to convey to the Israelis his lack of desire for confrontation during his speech on Hariri’s resignation.
Israel is, however, understandably trying to exploit the situation to its benefit diplomatically, and push back against Hezbollah and Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – currently in the United Kingdom for the centenary of the Balfour Declaration – has repeatedly cited Hariri’s resignation as confirmation of Israeli claims of Tehran’s regional threat. Meanwhile, Jerusalem’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has gone on a diplomatic full-court-press in support of Hariri and the Saudis. That will likely be the extent of Israel’s involvement in the affair and its reaction.
Iran is likely to proceed cautiously in reacting to events in Lebanon. Consider President Hassan Rouhani’s comments on Wednesday, criticizing Saudi Arabia’s “unprecedented” interference in internal Lebanese politics. While highly ironic coming from Tehran given their financial, materiel, and political support for Hezbollah, Rouhani’s pledge on Wednesday to not “allow Lebanon to become a battlefield for foreign powers,” signals that Tehran has much to lose with Hariri’s forced resignation—and more so than Riyadh. Hariri provided a cover for Hezbollah’s domination of the political space in Beirut—meaning he was a foil for international sanctions campaigns targeting Lebanese institutions, which some in the West and Israel have argued have been usurped by the Party of God. Consider his visit to Washington this summer—Hariri travelled to Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers to pump the breaks on sanctions in Lebanon. Such a message coming from Hariri was particularly powerful—the son of a former Lebanese prime minister whose death was linked to Hezbollah. With Hariri out of the government, Iran’s favored proxy Hezbollah is more exposed than ever before.
- Saudi Arabia
The cold war between Saudi Arabia and Iran will likely become hotter after the events of this week—with Lebanon becoming yet another ground zero, alongside Qatar, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. The Kingdom accused Lebanon itself of declaring war against Saudi Arabia—coded language because the Kingdom sees Beirut, and its government organs, as being Hezbollah’s wholly-owned enterprise. With the King’s man in Beirut—Saad Hariri—resigning, Riyadh may feel emboldened to flex its muscles even further and cut aid. We’ve seen this movie before, where Riyadh is unafraid to pull out of Lebanon—in March 2016, before Hariri assumed his post, the Saudis cancelled $4 billion in aid, $3 billion of which was scheduled to be allocated to the Lebanese Army. Fast forward to January 2017, after Hariri became prime minister, the aid was restored. If Saudi funding is cut, the Lebanese Army will become even more dependent on Iran, thus making it ripe for sanctions in the West.
David Daoud is a research analyst at United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI).