Nasrallah, Hariri and the Saudi-Iran connection

Sunday 03/07/2016
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah (C), speaking via a video link

BEIRUT - Lebanese former prime minister and prominent Sunni leader Rafik Hariri said Hezbollah’s admission that it was funded by Iran showed the powerful Shia militia owed more loyalty to the Islamic Republic and its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei than it did to the interests of the people of Leb­anon.
The war of words between Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, and Hezbollah Secretary-General Has­san Nasrallah reflects the regional rivalry between the biggest Shia power, Iran, and the major Sunni power, Saudi Arabia.
Iran and Hezbollah have both sent forces to shore up the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Saudi Arabia supports Sunni rebel forces trying to topple him. The Islamic Republic and Saudi kingdom also back opposing sides in the conflict in Yemen, leading some analysts to talk of a regional proxy war be­tween the two leading Sunni and Shia powers.
While it was common knowledge that Lebanon’s Hezbollah was fund­ed by Iran, the powerful militia, listed by Washington as a terrorist group, had not admitted so before. However, new US sanctions block­ing Hezbollah’s access to banking prompted Nasrallah to boast his group “will not be affected” by any fresh sanctions.
“We do not have any business projects or investments via banks,” he said in a broadcast speech. “We are open about the fact that Hezbol­lah’s budget, its income, its expens­es, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
The surprise admission could be an attempt to change the narrative and transform the conflict from one between Washington and Hezbollah to Washington and Iran.
Hezbollah opponents questioned how Tehran was funding the group, given that it has no access to Leba­non’s banking sector under the new sanctions. Security officials at Beirut-Rafik Hariri International Airport stressed it was unlikely Hez­bollah was receiving money directly from Iran via international flights, given the high level of security at the airport.
The open land route from Beirut and Damascus, however, means that money could easily be trans­ferred across the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Hariri accused Nasrallah of put­ting Iran before the interests of Lebanon where a deadlock between rival blocs dominated by the two leaders resulted in political stale­mate in which even small decisions cannot be made and parliament has failed to elect a president for more than two years.
Nasrallah, Hariri said in a speech, “is someone who boasts about be­ing an advanced military base for Iran and that all his funds and rock­ets come from the Islamic Revolu­tionary Guards Corps, this means that he is an Iranian party par excel­lence and that he is a part of Teh­ran’s political, religious and military project.
“It also means that he views or­ders from the Iranian supreme leader as more important than the interests of Lebanon and the Arab world.”
Despite the accusation, Hariri’s speech was a tacit admission of Lebanon’s powerlessness against Hezbollah, which has a more pow­erful armed force than the Lebanese Army.
Observers said Hariri’s speech rep­resented a declaration that Lebanon is under de facto foreign occupation and a call for the international com­munity to acknowledge it. There is even a view that Hariri’s comments could be a prelude for legal or diplo­matic action against Hezbollah and Iran.
Some Saudi analysts said Hariri is serving as Riyadh’s mouthpiece against Nasrallah and Iran, particu­larly given Saudi Arabia’s role in opposing and resisting any Iranian military influence in Arab countries. Indeed, Hariri went so far as to ac­cuse Tehran of being responsible for the chaos in the Middle East.
“Iran is funding Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilisation Forces in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen and the opposition in Bahrain. It is supporting the killing of innocents in Syria, funding terrorist attacks in Kuwait and chaos in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province, as well as sectar­ian groups in Sudan, Egypt and Al­geria,” he said.
“In short, Iran is supporting fitna in the Arab world,” Hariri said, us­ing an Arabic term that denotes re­ligious conflict.
Thus, Hariri was not only defend­ing Saudi Arabia’s position and ac­cusing Iran of being the cause of the ills of Lebanon and the Arab world, but also calling for Hezbollah to be dealt with as a subsidiary of Iran with no decision-making power of its own.
Many people are wondering whether Beirut has become a plat­form for debate and exchanging messages between Saudi Arabia and Iran, while there are questions about the feasibility of continuing dialogue between Hezbollah and Hariri’s Future Movement given the sharp divisions between the two.
Following terrorist attacks in Lebanon, this division can only be expected to sharpen with Hezbol­lah claiming that this justifies its involvement in Syria and the Future Movement saying the attacks are the direct result of Hezbollah’s unwant­ed involvement there.