Lebanon’s PM Hariri deepens mystery by appearing to retract his resignation on Saudi TV

The developments in this brewing political crisis between Riyadh and Tehran are bewildering, even by Saudi Arabia's standards.

A poster of resigned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri with Arabic that read, "We are all with you," hangs on a street in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. CREDIT: Hassan Ammar/AP Photo.
A poster of resigned Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri with Arabic that read, "We are all with you," hangs on a street in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Nov. 13, 2017. CREDIT: Hassan Ammar/AP Photo.

In a bizarre turnaround, Saad al-Hariri, who resigned from his position as Lebanon’s prime minister on Saudi television just over a week ago, gave an interview Sunday saying he’s considering going back to Lebanon and resuming his post, provided the government reaches “a final settlement with Hezbollah” on regional conflicts.

“We are in the eye of the storm,” he said when discussing getting drawn into what he sees as Iran’s regional fights, the Associated Press reported on Monday. Several stories over the weekend pointed to Hariri being pressured by Saudi to resign, quoting sources who said that he was “under house arrest” while the Saudis attempt to “orchestrate a change of leadership” in his party. Essentially, Riyadh’s own version of Schrödinger’s cat (both dead and alive until proven to be one or the other), Hariri is currently both prisoner and free man.

“He perhaps was trying to put those concerns to rest, but I’m not sure it’s really done the job,” Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse University, told ThinkProgress. Hariri, after all, resigned on foreign soil, remained silent for over a week, then made another TV appearance, again, on foreign soil, that indicated he’d reverse his resignation — a series of moves that give the impression that he’s not in charge of his own actions, as Saudi pushes back against Iranian influence in Lebanon.

“As the saying goes, when two elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets hurt, so in the confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it seems like Lebanon is the grass,” said Boroujerdi.

As for Hariri’s political future in Lebanon, Boroujerdi said the Sunni population and his party might accept him, but that “as far as other political players in the country are concerned, he’s really lost all credibility.”

At this point, sources close to Hariri have told Reuters that the Saudis, while keeping Hariri under house arrest, were trying to orchestrate a change of leadership in Hariri’s Future Movement party. But Hariri, a Sunni Lebanese-Saudi citizen who has been supported by Riyadh for years, said he was “free to travel.” In his resignation speech as well as his interview, Hariri blamed Iran for its support of Hezbollah — a Shia political party and armed group backed by Iran — in Lebanon.

The country’s president, Michel Aoun, a Maronite Christian backed by Hezbollah, has yet to accept Hariri’s resignation, and on Friday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused Saudi Arabia of declaring war. Boroujerdi said that Hariri’s resignation — and the circumstances surrounding it — will have the effect of drawing Aoun even closer to Hezbollah as he will feel like, “the Saudis have more dramatic plans” for Lebanon.

These developments, he said, reveal the extent of Saudi’s “misreading of the political landscape in Lebanon” — a country radically different from Saudi Arabia, where Crown Prince Mohmmed bin Salman can in fact do what he did with minimal domestic pushback less than 24 hours after Hariri’s resignation: Round up roughly 200 of is potential political rivals and arrest them under an “anti-corruption” crackdown, freezing their assets, and preventing them from leaving the country.

Riyadh has been escalating its fight with Tehran in recent months — in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition in support of the government, bombing Iran-backed Houthi rebels (as well as schools, markets and hospitals). It also lead the regional blockade against Qatar in the summer, which continues with no discernible change other than actually improving relations between Qatar and Iran. The Saudi gambit in Lebanon might represent a whole new level of miscalculation.

“You’re starting from the position of weakness, so what gives you the confidence that you are going to be dictating the terms in Lebanon — that’s the part that is really puzzling, even by Saudi standards of not necessarily doing things properly,” said Boroujerdi, who doubts that Iran or Hezbollah will take any steps to “be more aggressive than they already are … You really have to walk a very, very delicate line in Lebanon in light of the demographics, but also the political and military landscapes.”

“The Lebanon of today is different than what it was before the Syrian war. Many of the refugees who have settled there are Sunni,” he said, meaning that the at least 1 million Syrian refugees (that’s how many have registered) who have been crossing the border since the conflict started there in 2011 are shifting the country’s demographics. This, said Boroujerdi, makes Hezbollah less likely to want to pick a new fight.

Still, it remains to be seen if Hariri returns and how his return will change the dynamics of Lebanon’s internal politics, as well as the larger proxy war Saudi Arabia is fighting with Iran.

“The last chapter has not yet been written,” said Boroujerdi.