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Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announces surprise resignation

Al Arabiya screen grab |

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation on Saturday, citing Iran's "grip" on the country and threats to his life.

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The surprise move risks plunging the small and already fragile Middle Eastern country deeper into turmoil.

"I announce my resignation from the post of prime minister," Hariri said in a speech broadcast from Saudi Arabia by the Al-Arabiya news network.

"I felt what was being covertly plotted to target my life," he said.

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Hariri's personal security concerns appeared to gain little traction among the public. Social media were flooded with messages deriding him for choosing to resign from abroad and on a foreign channel.

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The two-time premier, whose father Rafik Hariri held the same position for years and was assassinated in 2005, accused Iran and its powerful Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah of seeking hegemony in the region.

The 47-year-old Sunni politician's resignation comes less than a year after his government was formed.

"Iran has a grip on the fate of the region's countries... Hezbollah is Iran's arm not just in Lebanon but in other Arab countries too," Hariri said.

He accused Tehran of "sowing discord among the children of the same nation and creating a state within the state ... to the extent that it gets the final say on how Lebanon's affairs are run".

Iran dismissed his accusations as "unfounded".

Hariri's "repetition of unreal and baseless accusations ... against Iran show that the resignation is designed to create tensions in Lebanon and in the region", Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said.

Iran-Saudi tension

Under a power-sharing agreement that ended the country's civil war, the post of Lebanon's president is designated for a Maronite Christian while that of prime minister is reserved for a Sunni and the president of the parliament is a Shiite.

But the country is also sharply divided between a camp loyal to Saudi Arabia – led by Hariri, a Sunni Muslim – and a camp loyal to Iran headed by Hezbollah. President Michel Aoun, who was elected in October 2016 after the presidential post remained vacant for two years, is a close ally of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is also vital ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the war the Damascus regime is waging against the Islamic State group and armed opposition movements.

Hezbollah enjoys broad support from Iran and is the only Lebanese party to have kept its weapons after the 1975-1990 civil war. Its arsenal has since grown exponentially and now outstrips that of the nation's own armed forces.

The group claims it is the only credible rampart against neighbouring Israel, but its refusal to disarm has created a deep divide in Lebanon.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hariri's resignation and his accusations against Iran should serve as a "wake-up call" to the world about Tehran's ambitions.

Saudi Arabia is Iran's main regional rival, and the two powers' tussle for influence has played out in ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The office of Lebanese President Aoun issued a statement saying it was waiting for Hariri's return to Lebanon "to enquire about the circumstances of his decision and decide on the next steps".

Hariri said in his speech on Saturday that the political climate in Lebanon was reminiscent of that which prevailed before his father was killed.

Tarek Mitri, former Lebanese culture minister

Risks of war

Walid Jumblatt, one of Lebanon's political heavyweights and the country's most prominent Druze leader, said Hariri's resignation could adversely affect a country already under huge strain.

He argued it was the latest manifestation of the tug-of-war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and called for intensifying diplomatic efforts to solve the feud.

"Lebanon is too small and vulnerable to bear the economic and political burden that comes with this resignation," he said on social media. "I will continue to call for dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran."

Even as he resigned, Hariri warned his foes: "Our nation will rise just as it did before and the hands that want to harm it will be cut off."

Hariri has resigned in defiance of Iranian influence in Lebanon

Lebanese political analyst Hilal Khashan argued that Saudi Arabia had been piling the pressure on its protege lately and "summoned" him to Riyadh.

He said Hariri's move could start "a cold war in Lebanon that could escalate into a civil war" or even a regional offensive against Hezbollah.

Speaking to FRANCE 24, Imad Salamay of the American University of Beirut said that while Hariri’s announcement comes as a surprise, pressure had been mounting on him both domestically and abroad, notably from the new US administration and Saudi Arabia.

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Hariri visited Saudi Arabia twice in the past week, meeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials.

Hariri was in self-imposed exile until 2014, living in France and Saudi Arabia. He left the country in 2011 after his government was toppled by an opposition coalition including Hezbollah.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS and AP)

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