Tension between Iran, Saudi Arabia increases in wake of Lebanon PM Hariri's exit

COMPILED FROM WIRE SERVICES
ISTANBUL
Published 05.11.2017 19:47
Updated 05.11.2017 19:49

Saad Hariri's resignation from Lebanon's premiership has raised fears that regional tensions are about to escalate and that the small country could once again pay a heavy price.

After Hariri's resignation, Iranian and Saudi Arabian officials exchanged words on social media and through the mainstream media.

Speaking to Iranian Mehr news agency, Iranian Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Hussein Sheikhulislam said U.S. President Donald Trump and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman are the true actors behind Prime Minister Hariri's departure, adding that Washington and Riyadh have intentionally increased tensions in Lebanon and the war-ravaged region.

"[Hariri's] resignation decision was clearly taken to confront Hezbollah. If Hariri respects the people of Lebanon and wants to protect them, we [Iranian officials] expect him to execute such a decision from nowhere else but his own country," Sheikhulislam told Iran's Mehr news agency.

"The hands of treason and hostility must be cut off," Saudi Minister of Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan said on Twitter. The minister spoke with Hariri on Tuesday in the Saudi capital of Riyadh after having criticized the Lebanese government last week for "remaining silent in response to Hezbollah's practices in Lebanon."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's press office responded to Hariri's resignation by urging the international community to act against Iran for "trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon."

Hariri announced his resignation in a televised broadcast from Saudi Arabia in which he accused Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of taking over his country and destabilizing the entire region.

Hariri made reference to the 2005 assassination of his father, who also served as prime minister, saying: "We are living in circumstances similar to those which prevailed before the assassination of the martyr Rafik Hariri." In the televised address, Hariri mentioned a secret plot "to target [his] life," without elaborating further. Saudi-owned broadcaster Al-Arabiya reported that an attempt on Hariri's life was thwarted in Beirut a few days earlier, citing unnamed sources. Hariri, who is currently on a visit in Saudi Arabia, will stay outside of Lebanon for security reasons, a source close to the premier told DPA news agency.

For years now, Lebanon has been deeply divided between a camp dominated by Shiite, Tehran-backed Hezbollah and a Saudi-supported movement led by Hariri. The rift in Lebanon's political ranks led to the 2005 assassination of Hariri's father Rafik, a tremendously influential tycoon who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia.

Other political assassinations ensued in the anti-Hezbollah camp which led to a month-long war between the powerful militia and neighboring Israel, as well as violent internal clashes that harked back to the dark days of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

Twelve years on, Lebanese politics still remain just as toxically sectarian, and the threat of another flare-up is very real. Hariri even said on Saturday that he fears going down the same path of his father. His resignation came in the context of high tensions between Saudi Arabia, once the region's powerhouse, and Iran, which has recently been playing an increasingly prominent political and military role in the region.

Since the devastating war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, Israeli politicians have recently ramped up their rhetoric, warning that Israel's military is prepared for war with Lebanon.

Any new war that would damage key infrastructure could potentially have a disastrous impact on a country already weakened by ballooning debt, corruption and demographic pressure stemming from the massive influx of Syrian refugees.

As soon as news of Hariri's resignation broke, many Lebanese citizens took to social media to voice their fears of a return to violence.

"After Hariri's resignation, a war will be launched against Lebanon," Ali Hammoud wrote on Twitter. On the streets of Beirut, even those who had little sympathy for Hariri expressed concern. "We're headed for the worst," said one shop owner.

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