The resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister kicked off a chain of events that has sent shock waves throughout the Middle East. It can be seen as another effort on Saudi Arabia's part to limit growing Iranian influence in the region.
The resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister has sent shock waves throughout the Middle East that were felt from the Levant to the Gulf.
Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon announced his resignation during a visit to Saudi Arabia on Saturday, blaming Iran for stoking tensions in the region. Hours later, the Saudis intercepted a missile launched from Yemen which they say was launched by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Later that evening, police detained dozens of Saudi royals, businessmen, and ministers in a crackdown led by Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who said he was conducting a “corruption” probe.
But the events did not end there.
A Saudi deputy governor was killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday, near the Saudi-Yemen border, an incident that is still under investigation.
Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas flew to Saudi Arabia from Egypt on Monday for an unexpected visit. This comes a week after Hamas handed over control of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority.
Adding to the chaos, Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon of declaring war through the “aggressive” behavior of its Iran-backed Hezbollah militia.
Saudi Arabia has warned its citizens against traveling to Lebanon and asked those who in the country to leave as soon as possible on Thursday. After Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE also issued similar warnings.
Much of the media focus centers on the Saudi “anti-corruption” sweep, which is viewed as yet another domestic political earthquake set off by crown prince Muhammad bin Salman in order to strengthen his position. The 32-year-old replaced his cousin as heir apparent in June, and has since then been working to remove obstacles to his vision for Saudi Arabia and the region.
These events are part of the ongoing battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran in their struggle for regional hegemony.
The unending war in Yemen, an unresolved Qatar crisis, and diminishing Saudi control in Syria and Iraq, show waning Saudi influence, as Iran continues to use its proxies to exert its presence.
So what exactly happened, and what does all of this have to do with Iran?
What does Lebanon have to do with Saudi Arabia?
Lebanon has been a proxy battleground for Saudi Arabia and Iran.
When Prime Minister Hariri announced his resignation from Riyadh on Saturday, he cited fears of assassination by the powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah militia that is effectively running Lebanon. “They [Hezbollah] have built a state within a state,” Hariri said.
Hariri had also made an unexpected visit to Saudi Arabia on October 30. When he returned, he met with Ali Akbar Velayeti, Senior Advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Velayeti praised the Lebanese coalition cabinet, which includes ministers from Hezbollah. When Hariri announced his resignation through a Saudi-owned TV station, he accused Hezbollah of “directing weapons” at Yemenis, Syrians and Lebanese. Referring to Iran, he said that the Arab world would “cut off the hands that wickedly extend to it.”
Saad Hariri, came to his post in the years following the assassination of his father, Rafik Hariri in 2005. The Hariri family, and Sunni groups in the country, blamed Hezbollah for the assassination. Saad Hariri’s party, which came back into power last year, grouped nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, including Hezbollah, into a coalition. It took office in a political deal that made Michel Aoun president, who is a Hezbollah ally, president. The move was seen as a victory for Iran.
The prime ministerial office is backed by the Saudi government. However, the most powerful group in the country by far is the Shia Hezbollah group, which effectively controls the government and army.
The political system in Lebanon is a fragile system of power-sharing based on sects. The division is enshrined in the constitution, with the prime minister of the country a Sunni, the speaker of parliament a Shia, and the president of the country a Maronite Christian. The setup provides a tenuous peace, and is prone to shakeups and deadlocks, as was seen in the 2014-2016 presidential crisis. At that time, Lebanon was left without a government for more than two years, due to lack of consensus in deciding on the country's leadership.
Hezbollah says Riyadh is behind the resignation
Hariri’s resignation, a big surprise to Beirut’s political establishment, is afraid to bring down the coalition government and plunge Lebanon into a new political crisis.
Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah said that Saudi Arabia had forced Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign, and called for calm and patience in Lebanon.
Nasrallah also said “legitimate questions” were being raised in Lebanon over whether Hariri was being detained in Saudi Arabia. Hariri allies in Lebanon have denied suggestions that he is being detained.
The Saudi-owned pan-Arab television channel Al Arabiya Al Hadath reported that an assassination plot against Hariri was foiled in Beirut days ago, citing an unnamed source.
Saudi Arabia's Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer Al Sabhan said in a television interview that Hariri's personal security detail had "confirmed information" of a plot to kill him.
Lebanon's internal security force said in a statement on the reports that it had no information about the matter.
A member of Hezbollah's central committee, Nabil Kawouk, accused Riyadh of being behind Hariri's resignation, saying in a speech reported by Lebanon's Al Jadeed television, "God protect Lebanon from the evil of Saudi Arabia's reckless adventures."
Upon Hariri’s remarks about Iran and Hezbollah sowing strife in the Arab world, Tehran said that the resignation would create tension in the region.
“The resigning Lebanese prime minister’s repetition of the unrealistic and unfounded accusations of the Zionists, Saudis and Americans against Iran is an indication that this resignation is a new scenario for creating tension in Lebanon and the region,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi said in a statement published on the ministry website.
Missile launched to Saudi Arabia
Hours later a Saudi-led coalition accused Yemen’s Houthi rebels of “dangerous escalation (that) came because of Iranian support” after Saudi air defences intercepted the ballistic missile heading toward Riyadh. It was brought down near Riyadh airport without causing any casualties.
“The Houthis’ dangerous escalation came because of Iranian support,” coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al Maliki said in a televised news conference. He added that the rocket launch vehicles used to fire the missile were made in Iran.
The Houthis are an Iranian-backed group based in the north of Yemen. In 2004, the group launched a rebellion against the state. The rebellion, which unravelled into an all-out civil war in 2015 pit the internationally recognised government, backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, against the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse arch-foe Iran of supplying missiles and other weapons to the Houthis, saying the arms were not present in Yemen before the conflict began in 2015. Tehran denies the charges and blames the conflict on Riyadh.
On Sunday, a double suicide attack in Aden, the interim headquarters of Yemen’s internationally-recognised government, killed at least 15 people and wounded 20 others. Witnesses said that violence erupted in the area immediately afterwards. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for those suicide attacks.
In response to the missile launch, Saudi Arabia closed all air, sea, and land access to war-struck Yemen on Monday. About 7 million people in Yemen are starving, and a cholera outbreak has worsened the humanitarian crisis in the poorest country in the Arab world.
Declaration of war?
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al Jubeir said on his Twitter account on Monday that Riyadh reserved the right to respond to what he called Iran’s “hostile actions.”
تحتفظ المملكة بحق الرد بالشكل والوقت المناسبين على تصرفات النظام الإيراني العدائية، ونؤكد بأن لا تسامح مع #الارهاب ورعاته— عادل بن أحمد الجبير (@AdelAljubeir) November 6, 2017
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif responded by saying that Saudi Arabia was blaming Tehran for the consequences of its own “wars of aggression.”
Visits to the belligerent #KSA have proved hazardous to regional health. Trump visit led to Bahrain repression followed by Qatar debacle.1/— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) November 6, 2017
Visits by Kushner & Lebanese PM led to Hariri's bizarre resignation while abroad. Of course, Iran is accused of interference. 2/— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) November 6, 2017
KSA is engaged in wars of aggression, regional bullying, destabilizing behavior & risky provocations. It blames Iran for the consequences.4/— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) November 6, 2017
On Monday, Saudi Minister of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Thamer al Sabhan blamed Hezbollah for the missile attack on Riyadh.
“We will treat the government of Lebanon as warmongers against Saudi Arabia due to the aggression of Hezbollah,” he said.
In an interview with Al Arabiya, Sabhan also said that Saudi Arabia would use all political and other means to confront the militia.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani called Lebanese president Aoun to pledge his support, and then accused Saudi Arabia of interfering in the country’s internal affairs.
“There is no case in history that a country forces another one's authority to resign only to interfere (in) their internal affairs... This is an unprecedented event in history,” said Rouhani.
The Israel factor
Soon after Hariri announced his resignation, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a statement warning the international community of “Iranian aggression that is trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon.”
My remarks on the resignation of Lebanese PM Hariri pic.twitter.com/f0skX3dpE8— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) November 4, 2017
Israel’s biggest security concern in the region is Iran, which it views as an existential threat, since Iran gives military and financial support to Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza. Israel and Lebanon have been in conflict for decades, and war ensued again between the two countries in 2006, which continues on a smaller scale even today.
Hezbollah’s strong involvement in the Syrian war on behalf of the regime has stoked Israel’s concerns about the militia.
A day before Hariri’s resignation, Netanyahu expressed his concerns about Syria during a speech at Chatham House, saying that, “Iran had come into the Syrian war to Lebanon-ise Syria economically and militarily.”
He also underlined, as he has done before, the importance of cooperation between Arab states and Israel against Iran.
“The good guys are getting together with Israel in a new way, forming an effective alliance to counter the aggression of Iran. It has a great promise of peace,” he said.
Israel and Saudi Arabia have increased cooperation. There were reports of a Saudi prince visiting Israel in early September, amid speculations of growing communications over their common views of the growing threat of Iran.
The Trump effect
Saudi-Israeli cooperation against Iran cannot be understood without taking the role of the US into consideration.
Donald Trump repeated his support for Israel, and disapproval of Iran during his presidential campaign. He has also pressed for policies to curb Iranian influence in the region since he took office.
His latest remarks have culminated in a new US strategy on Iran, released on October 13, 2017, that centers on “neutralising ... Iran’s destabilizing influence and constraining its aggression, particularly its support for terrorism and militants,” and “revitalizing” alliances and regional partnerships against Iran.
It is in this light that Trump’s Middle East policy can be read. In May, Trump made his first overseas trip, which was a tour of the Middle East, starting in Saudi Arabia, and including Israel and some Gulf countries. Trump had emphasized that his trip aimed to bring peace between Israel and Palestine, and encourage cooperation to fight terrorism, as well as curb Iranian influence in the region. Saudi Arabia and the US signed a $110 billion arms deal during that visit, bolstering Saudi Arabia’s military clout.
Muhammad bin Salman, who was already known for his strong anti-Iran stance, was named crown prince in place of his cousin, Muhammed bin Nayef in June, a month after Trump’s visit.
In June, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner visited Israel as part of what they called an attempt to broker peace between Israel and Palestine.
It is important to note that Palestine consists of two traditionally rival factions - Hamas, which was running Gaza, and Fatah, which runs the West Bank. To speak of a peace deal between Israel and Palestine would require a union between the two groups and leading of Fatah, since Hamas is supported by Iran, not open to any talks with Israel and considered as a terror group by Israel, the US and some Arab countries, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Years of tensions between the two had left the communities frustrated. Gaza, which was caught between the Israeli blockade and the Fatah/Hamas conflict was on the verge of a humanitarian disaster.
During the summer, a series of visits, including Fatah leader Abbas' visit to Egypt and Saudi Arabia followed.
Weeks later, in October, Hamas and Fatah announced a rapprochement, headed by Egypt, in coordination with the US and Israel. Saudi Arabia released a statement welcoming the deal. Jared Kushner reportedly made another trip to Saudi Arabia in late October to meet with Muhammad bin Salman.
On Monday, two days after Hariri’s resignation, crown prince Muhammad invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh to discuss a US-brokered peace deal between Israel and Palestine.
Mahmoud Abbas, who is open to discussions with Israel, already had more support of the international community in comparison to Hamas. As Hamas pulled back, Abbas’ Fatah came to the forefront for Palestinian representation.
Israeli-Palestinian conciliation makes Arab-Israeli collaborated efforts against Iran more of a possibility.