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The bizarre saga of the Lebanese prime minister’s un-resignation

This may cap a tumultuous political crisis in the Middle East.

BEIRUT, LEBANON- NOVEMBER 22:  Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri makes a public appearance at his home "Beit al-Wasat" November 22, 2017 in Beirut, Lebanon. Hariri arrived early Wednesday to participate in the official celebration of Lebanese Independence Day and to meet with President Michel Aoun after Hariri's shocking resignation announcement in Riyadh last week, which sparked accusations that was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will. Hariri has changed his mind and decided not to resign. (Photo by Salah Malkawi/ Getty Images)
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

On November 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri mysteriously and suddenly announced his resignation. But he abruptly delayed that decision Wednesday, potentially ending a political crisis that could’ve devolved into a new Middle East war.

“I presented today my resignation to President [Michel] Aoun and he urged me to wait before offering it and to hold onto it for more dialogue about its reasons and political background, and I showed responsiveness,” Hariri said inside the presidential palace today, ending a weeks-long absence from Lebanon.

Hariri originally stepped down by reading a statement on live television from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. That immediately fueled speculation in Lebanon that the Saudi government, which has deep, longstanding ties to Hariri, had forced him to resign against his will and was holding him under house arrest. Hariri was in Saudi Arabia until he returned to Lebanon Tuesday night.

In his resignation speech, Hariri explained he was stepping down because rising Iranian influence in his country had made him fearful he would suffer the same fate as his father, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated by a car bomb in 2005 by agents believed to be affiliated with the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah.

While Hariri was in Saudi Arabia, rumors swirled that Riyadh’s ambitious new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, hoped to replace Hariri with his older brother Bahaa Hariri, because of his hardline stances on Iran. Instead, the younger Hariri will remain in office, at least for now.

Hariri’s decision to reverse his resignation caps a tumultuous month. But the important thing to understand here isn’t about the fate of a single Lebanese politician. It’s that Hariri’s absence gave Iran-backed Hezbollah space to take even more control of Lebanon’s government in the short term.

Had Hezbollah gained more power, the chance of a conflict that could’ve involved Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, and possibly Israel would have increased. But now that Hariri is back, perhaps tensions will calm down slightly — although it remains to be seen if Lebanon will continue to reel from the political crisis Hariri started in the first place.

Inside Saudi Arabia’s cold war with Iran

To understand the crisis in Lebanon, you first need to understand the cold war raging between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Iran’s government is a Shia Muslim theocracy; Saudi Arabia’s government is a monarchy closely aligned with the country’s Sunni Muslim religious establishment. The two countries represent two ideological and political poles and have spent decades fighting each other for dominance in the Middle East and for the right to represent the Muslim world.

But instead of openly waging war, Saudi Arabia and Iran back opposing political factions and extremist groups as a way of exerting influence and control. For example, this is playing out in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia — with US military assistance — is currently engaged in a brutal air war against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters. It’s possibly the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, with more than 900,000 suffering from cholera and millions starving. This proxy war plays out in Syria and other parts of the Middle East — and now openly in Lebanon.

Another factor at play, experts told me, is the Trump administration’s openly pro-Saudi policies. That has included backing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his ongoing purge of 11 princes and other members of the royal family.

“The Saudis see a massive opportunity in the Trump administration embracing them,” Bilal Saab, a security expert at the Middle East Institute, told me, adding that the White House supports Saudi efforts to “confront the Iranians.”

The Lebanon crisis is actually about defying Iran

Hariri, the just-returned Lebanese prime minister, is a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen with deep financial ties to Saudi Arabia. His family had owned a construction business there since the 1970s, but he was forced to close it earlier this year for financial reasons. And because he’s a Saudi national, much of the money he has left is still in Saudi Arabia — which gives Riyadh leverage over him.

“Saudi Arabia has basically seized all his assets,” Saab told me. “The suspicion is they’ve threatened to charge him with corruption and detain him forever unless he does whatever they want him to do.”

Hariri’s resignation was destabilizing in part because the Lebanese political system requires different religious groups to share power: Lebanon’s prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president must be a Maronite Christian, and the parliamentary speaker must be a Shia Muslim. Saudi Arabia, as the regional Sunni leader, usually backs the prime minister — as it seems to with Hariri.

Iran, for its part, has a strong stake in Beirut’s politics: It supports Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia militant group that is the country’s most powerful political and military organization.

Naturally, Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia don’t like each other. Saudi officials once referred to Hezbollah as “the party of the devil,” and Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, called Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative brand of Sunni Islam “more evil than Israel.”

Had Hariri not returned, there would likely have been a political tug-of-war between Saudi Arabia and Iran to fill the power vacuum. And if Iran had to focus on a protracted political crisis in Lebanon, it would’ve had less time to focus on the wars in Yemen and Syria, Saab noted, which meant Iran might not have been able to fight Saudi Arabia’s proxies as aggressively.

Hariri’s absence could have led to open war

On November 6, two days after Hariri announced he would step down, Saudi Arabia claimed that Lebanon had declared war against it because of the alleged plot to kill Hariri and because a rocket shot from Yemen was aimed at the Riyadh airport. Riyadh blames Hezbollah and Iran for the launch.

Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan also said Hariri hadn’t done enough to counter Hezbollah, but said others had the ability to force the militant group to “return to the caves of South Lebanon.”

Nasrallah responded in a televised address last Friday, saying, "It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

Despite the accusations, an actual Hezbollah-Saudi war was unlikely. “Casting Lebanon as a Hezbollah-dominated pariah state does make waging a war simpler, so I think it’s safe to say the chance of such a war has increased,” Faysal Itani, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, told me. “But I don’t think it has increased dramatically, because no one seems willing to fight this war.”

Yet there was still a conflict worth worrying about, experts told me, as there was a possibility Hezbollah and Israel could fight.

It’s happened before. In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah battled in a month-long war where the militant group fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel and Israeli forces fired around 7,000 bombs and missiles into Lebanon.

About 160 Israelis troops and civilians died, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and about 1,100 Lebanese — most of them civilians — perished, according to Human Rights Watch. About 4,400 Lebanese were injured, and nearly 1 million people were displaced.

So had Hezbollah gained more political and military power in Lebanon as a result of the instability, it would certainly raise concerns in Jerusalem. It remains to be seen if Hariri’s return minimized all that anxiety.

The growing tensions in the region helped explain why French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Saudi Arabia on November 10 in an unscheduled two-hour visit to discuss the tensions between Beirut and Riyadh. France and Lebanon have a historically close relationship, as France was the ruling colonial power in Lebanon from the end of the Ottoman Empire until Lebanon’s independence in 1944. It’s unclear if Macron’s visit had any effect, though.

On November 9, Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon. That was the fourth time in five years that Riyadh has made such a request. Saudi allies Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also requested that their citizens leave Lebanon.

So what may have at first seemed like a small political issue in Lebanon had the potential to turn into a wider Middle East quagmire. Hariri’s return doesn’t solve the region’s problems, but it helps to calm a political crisis that could’ve made them much worse.