Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation on 4 November 2017, citing “confirmed information” of a plan to assassinate him.
- Saad Hariri’s resignation is most likely to have been driven by Saudi Arabia, reflecting its intent to expand its regional confrontation with Iran to Lebanon, having already been engaged in proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.
- The resignation stands to destabilise Lebanon’s delicate sectarian balance. Given Hariri’s high support level within Lebanon’s Sunni community, the appointment of another Sunni politician to the position of prime minister would risk alienating them from the political mechanism.
- It is highly likely that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is betting on Israeli intent to escalate against Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria as a less costly way – for Saudi Arabia – of confronting Iranian regional influence.
In the same statement, Hariri accused Iran of “sowing strife in the Arab world” and Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hizbullah of having brought Lebanon into the “eye of a storm”. Hariri’s decision comes one year after the establishment of a coalition government in Lebanon, following the election of Michel Aoun, Hizbullah’s ally since 2005, to the presidency after the two-year vacancy of the post. Aoun had, in turn, appointed Hariri as prime minister. In a meeting with Hariri prior to his resignation, Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had described Hariri’s coalition as “a victory” and “great success”.
Looming Saudi-Iranian confrontation
Our team assesses that Hariri’s resignation is highly likely to have been driven by Saudi Arabia. This reflects the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s intent to expand its regional confrontation with Iran to Lebanon, having already been engaged in proxy wars in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Hariri’s stated reasons for his resignation, that Hizbullah was dominating Lebanon by force, with a view to furthering Iran’s regional agenda, would have had to be known to him when he initially agreed to nominate Suleyman Franjieh, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s close personal friend, to Lebanon’s presidency, after which he ultimately decided to support Aoun. Crucially, Hariri’s resignation was announced while he was visiting Saudi Arabia.
Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper which reflects Hizbullah’s views, had been reporting since 25 September that Hariri would resign, arguing that this would come as part of the formulation of a regional US policy to confront Hizbullah, in partnership with Saudi Arabia. Hassan Nasrallah, Secretary General of Hizbullah, confirmed that his party viewed the resignation as a Saudi decision. The 4 November ballistic missile strike targeting Riyadh, launched by the Houthi movement in Yemen, is likely to have been ordered by Tehran as a direct retaliation to Saudi’s move in Lebanon (see Saudi Arabia: 6 November 2017: Houthi missile fired at Riyadh indicates intent to engage targets deep in Saudi Arabia, despite escalation risk). The missile attack was cited by Saudi Arabia and its allies as further evidence of Iranian assistance to the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to confront Iran in Lebanon is likely to have been co-ordinated with the US. This follows a series of new measures recently passed by the US against Hizbullah and Iran. On 10 October, the State Department monetary rewards for two key Hizbullah officials: USD7 million for its External Security Organisation chief, Talal Hamiyah, and USD5 million for a senior military officer, Fuad Shukr. On 13 October 2017, the US Treasury Department announced that it would formally add Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) to its anti-terrorism sanctions list. Last, on 25 October, new sanctions were passed by the US Congress against Hizbullah. The effectiveness of such measures on Hizbullah’s military capabilities, however, is likely to be limited. Hizbullah has been listed by the US as a foreign terrorist organisation since 1997.
Outlook and implications
We previously assessed that there is an increased risk of an Israel-Hizbullah war (see Lebanon-Israel-Syria: 26 June 2017: Risk of Israel-Hizbullah war rising, given high preparedness and risk of unintended escalation, most likely over Syria). It is likely that, by forcing Hariri’s resignation, Mohammed bin Salman is intending to destabilise the sectarian balance in Lebanon. Given the high level of support for Hariri within Lebanon’s Sunni community, it is likely that another Sunni politician assuming the premiership would alienate the Sunnis. A period of political deadlock is therefore likely to result from Hariri’s political absence. Mohammed bin Salman is likely to have calculated that this would prepare the ground for an Israeli escalation against Hizbullah in Lebanon and Syria, in which Bin Salman and his proxies, such as Hariri, would support Israel against Hizbullah. This would be a relatively cheap way for Saudi Arabia to confront Iranian regional influence. Second, by contriving an escalation in Lebanon, Bin Salman would stand to benefit from the ensuing regional upheaval to increase his domestic influence.
Firas Modad, Research and Analysis Director Country Risk – Middle East and North Africa at IHS Markit
Posted 9 November 2017