Hariri did not want to give Hezbollah political cover, says Iran expert
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Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri's shock resignation on Saturday has raised fears of regional instability. To learn more about the premier's decision, FRANCE 24 spoke with Middle East security expert Khattar Abou Diab.
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, in office since October 2016, took the Middle East by surprise when he announced that he was resigning in a televised speech Saturday while he was in Saudi Arabia. Hariri accused Iran and its ally Hezbollah of exercising too much influence in Lebanon.
Under the country’s power-sharing agreement, the post of president, currently held by Michel Aoun, is designated for a Maronite Christian; that of prime minister is reserved for a Sunni and that of president of the parliament for a Shiite.
FRANCE 24 spoke with Khattar Abou Diab, a Franco-Lebanese professor of Middle Eastern politics and adviser to French and European bodies on regional security issues, about what might come next for Lebanon and the region.
FRANCE 24: Why did Saad Hariri resign?
Khattar Abou Diab: Saad Hariri’s arrival in power a year ago was the result of a compromise between multiple political currents in Lebanon: notably between the one he represents, which is more closely aligned with Saudi Arabia, and the one the current president, Michel Aoun, represents, which is more closely tied to Iran.
The other major political movements like Hezbollah, Amal and Lebanese forces were part of the agreement, too. The goal of the compromise was to put Lebanon on the sidelines of the ongoing regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
As time went on, Hariri realised that Hezbollah which he presented today in his resignation speech as a state within the state was shifting Lebanon into the Iranian axis. He feared political, economic and security instability as a result of that, particularly following the recent US sanctions against Hezbollah.
That, coupled with the fact that Aoun wasn’t respecting his part of the compromise, led him to conclude that he couldn’t continue in the government.
FRANCE 24: What was Aoun not respecting?
Khattar Abou Diab: To not ally with Iran and to maintain Lebanese independence – to make sure that Lebanese interests were the only ones influencing Lebanon’s choices.
Aoun has agreed politically with Hezbollah since 2006. Recently, he declared that the issue of Hezbollah’s armament could only be solved within the framework of a broader resolution of the Middle East’s crisis.
That means that he accepts the fact that Hezbollah operates as a state within the state and that Hezbollah’s armament won’t be managed by the Lebanese state.
Hariri spent a year swallowing that reality. He tried to make progress given these contradictory options, but at this moment there’s an exacerbation of regional tensions – [and] a new US strategy against Iran and against Iranian interests – and maybe Hariri didn’t want his presence in the government to provide political cover for Hezbollah to use the Lebanese state to protect itself.
FRANCE 24: What roles did Saudi Arabia and Iran play in the decision?
Khattar Abou Diab: The conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran has had serious repercussions on Lebanon. There’s a regional reordering going on after the fall of the Islamic State group and Iran has been tempted to increase its influence, which other regional actors like Saudi Arabia don’t accept.
FRANCE 24: What effect will Hariri’s departure have on Aoun’s government?
Khattar Abou Diab: For the moment, Aoun says that he is waiting for a written resignation before he reacts, but ultimately a lot will depend on what Hezbollah decides to do.
We might see a temporary government manage things for the near future, but right now this puts Lebanon into a very tense political crisis.
FRANCE 24: Does Hariri’s resignation actually remove a check on Hezbollah?
Khattar Abou Diab: It’s a double-edged sword for Hezbollah, which is now freer to act and to try and form a government favourable to its desires, but I don’t think so. Hezbollah was happy being able to use Hariri’s presence as cover. For the past year Hezbollah had its hands on the most important political and military decisions and left the rest of the political class holding the bag for corruption and a lack of transparency, [and] poor management of the country’s affairs.
Now Hezbollah holds all the responsibility for what happens domestically, as well as regionally.
FRANCE 24: Is there a solution that would maintain stability for the country and the region?
Khattar Abou Diab: From May 2011 until now, Lebanon has been able to stay on the sidelines of the Syrian conflict. But now with the conflict ending, Lebanon could end up paying a price. A lot depends on President Aoun; if he aligns himself with Hezbollah or agrees to carry out its demands, that’s a big risk for Lebanon. If he returns to a sort of equilibrium and doesn’t try to play referee, then the country might skate through unscathed.