Riyadh wants to contain Iran influence in region
BEIRUT - Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies are no longer willing to tolerate the prominent role they believe Iran has gained in Lebanon via Hezbollah and have taken steps to contain Tehran’s influence in the country and the region, Arab Gulf officials said.
The Saudi decision to freeze grants totalling $4 billion to the Lebanese military was the first in a series of actions by Riyadh and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members that culminated with the decision to regard Hezbollah a terrorist organisation for its involvement in the affairs of Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.
Riyadh’s action was reportedly triggered by several events, including Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, an ally of Hezbollah, abstaining from a vote by the Arab League condemning Tehran for attacks on Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran.
“This was not the result of a single act but a number of actions that led GCC officials to conclude that Lebanon has fallen completely under Hezbollah’s control and is now on Iran’s side,” said a senior Gulf military official who asked not to be named.
This was echoed by Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, after talks with French officials in Paris on the defence contract that had been meant for Lebanon.
“We didn’t stop the contract. It’s just going to Saudi Arabia, not to Hezbollah,” Jubeir said. “We have a situation in which Lebanon’s decisions have been hijacked by Hezbollah.”
Since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990 under the Saudi-brokered Taif agreement, Lebanon has been strongly influenced by Saudi Arabia and Syria.
Even though almost all Lebanese militias were disarmed, Hezbollah, at the request of Damascus, was allowed to retain its role as a resistance movement against Israel to force it out of southern Lebanon — a task accomplished in 2000.
But since Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, the Iran-backed Hezbollah gained standing, especially after the Israeli war in 2006 that left the militant group with large caches of arms, delivered from Iran via Damascus.
In 2008, after the Lebanese parliament failed to agree on a new president, a power struggle broke out between the Saudi-backed Lebanese government and pro- Syrian and Iranian factions led by Hezbollah.
Hezbollah gunmen overran Beirut and the country neared another civil war. Intensive diplomatic efforts led to an agreement between the Lebanese factions that brought about the election of the then- Army Commander General Michel Suleiman as a neutral candidate and the formation of a government headed by a Saudi-backed official, with a veto power for pro-Syrian and Iranian factions in government.
The Iranian influence in Lebanon grew as the Syrian regime weakened after uprisings in March 2011 developed into civil war.
“Now Lebanon is under full Iranian hegemony and the pro-Saudi factions are helpless even though they hold key positions like the prime ministry and the ministries of interior, defence and justice,” said the Arab Gulf military official.
“What use is giving Lebanon defence and security assistance if it cannot enforce proper border control and prevent armed Hezbollah gunmen from reaching Syria, Iraq and Yemen?”
“Hezbollah has announced its full allegiance to Iran and its leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, has openly announced his hostile position of Saudi Arabia and admitted involvement in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain,” the official said. “This can no longer be tolerated and must stop.”
The GCC leadership apparently was concerned with the way the international community has become tolerant of Iran’s meddling in Arab affairs and with the way global powers, such as the United States and Russia, were coordinating with Tehran-backed Shia militias in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Minister of Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan likened Hezbollah and other Shia militias in Iraq and Syria to internationally branded terrorist groups the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.
While the world rallied to fight ISIS and al-Qaeda, Russia is providing air support to Hezbollah and other Shia militias combating Syrian rebels and the United States is providing air cover for Shia militias in Iraq.
“There is no such thing as good Shia radical groups and bad Sunni radical groups,” said one Gulf official who asked not to be named. “There are extremist groups that commit atrocities under the name of religion and they all should be considered as terrorist regardless of whether they are Shias or Sunnis.”
GCC members are expected to keep pressure on Hezbollah and will seek to have other Arab, Islamic and foreign countries list the group as terrorist to limit Hezbollah activities by depriving its members and leadership the ability to travel freely or transfer funds.
“We will pressure the Lebanese people and international community to take action against Hezbollah and free the Lebanese decision of Iran,” the Gulf military official said. “We are not responsible for what happens in Lebanon now because the international community is the one to blame for allowing Iran to use Hezbollah to gain control of Lebanon. So let them do something about it.”