Nasrallah, Hariri and the Saudi-Iran connection
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.