Iran concerned about Hariri’s resignation fallout
Iran, which is often the instigator of regional instability, is concerned about volatility sparked by the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Hariri’s stepping down not only ends the political cohabitation between Hezbollah and other leading political forces in Lebanon, it exposes Tehran’s ally to a military threat from Israel and harsh international sanctions.
Everything seemed to be in Tehran’s favour when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s foreign policy adviser Ali Akbar Velayati met with Hariri in Beirut on November 3. “Iran supports stability in Lebanon and defends the stability of the Lebanese government,” Velayati said after the meeting.
He continued: “It is the terrorists and extremist takfiri movements, supported by the United States, the Zionists and some regional countries, who do not want stability, security, independence and unity in the region.”
Hariri responded by saying: “In spite of some conflicts, stability and security is established in Lebanon and all groups cooperate [to achieve this goal].”
Less than 48 hours later, Hariri had resigned. In a televised address from Riyadh, Hariri said he feared an assassination plot and accused Iran of meddling in the region, causing “devastation and chaos.”
Iranian leaders and the country’s regional allies attempted to give measured and confident responses but they are clearly fearful of political instability in Lebanon.
Rather than attack Hariri and his Future Movement, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah charged Saudi Arabia with the “dangerous accusations” made in Hariri’s resignation statement. He urged the Lebanese people to remain calm. In an indirect reference to the 1975-90 civil war in Lebanon, Nasrallah warned against “taking politics into the streets” and “returning to sectarian provocations of the past.” He said Israel would not “wage war unless the result is decisively in its favour.”
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi took a similar line and targeted Saudi Arabia. He said: “The resigned Lebanese prime minister’s repetition of unfounded accusations levelled against Iran by the Zionists, Saudis and Americans bear witness to the fact that this resignation, too, is a new scenario to create new tension in Lebanon and in the region.”
Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander, assumed a bolder posture. Hariri’s departure from office “may not be that bad,” he said. “What good did he do for the Lebanese people? God willing, the situation will improve.”
“A resignation delivered in Riyadh sends the clear message that it took place with the backing of the Arrogance [the United States] and the Arab states,” Jafari added.
Iran and its allies have every reason to be concerned. With the blessing of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, Hariri’s premiership marked at least political cohabitation, if not reconciliation between Hezbollah and other leading political forces in Lebanon. This arrangement not only legitimised Hezbollah as a part of the government but implicitly recognised Hezbollah’s military and its engagement in neighbouring Syria. Hariri’s resignation effectively puts an end to this.
In addition, Hezbollah may find itself more exposed to international sanctions and extremely vulnerable if there is armed conflict with Israel. It is ill-prepared for this given its costly involvement in Syria over the past six years. I have identified 1,172 Hezbollah fighters, including 71 senior officers, killed in combat in Syria since October 2012. This number must be considered an absolute minimum; the real figures are probably higher. Hezbollah fighters undoubtedly gained combat experience in Syria but the militia needs time to reorganise and rebuild its capabilities.
Facing increased uncertainty in Lebanon and the risk of Israeli military action against Hezbollah, Tehran is forced to provide Hezbollah with increased funds and more arms. With one move on the chess board, the house of cards built by the Islamic Republic has come tumbling down.