The mysterious sudden resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister has sparked a political crisis that is escalating longstanding tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran — and raises the real prospect of open warfare between the two Middle Eastern powers.
The intrigue began on November 4, when Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri suddenly announced his resignation — but he did it by reading a statement on live television from Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia. That immediately fueled speculation in Lebanon that the Saudi government, which has deep, longstanding ties to Hariri, had forced him to resign against his will and was holding him under house arrest.
In his resignation speech, Hariri explained he was stepping down because rising Iranian influence in his country had made him fearful he would suffer the same fate as his father, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated by a car bomb in 2005 by agents believed to be affiliated with the Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah.
Hariri is still in Saudi Arabia, and Lebanese officials are demanding his return. At the same time, rumors swirl that Saudi leadership hopes to replace Hariri with his brother, Bahaa. But on Sunday, in his first interview since his resignation, Saad Hariri spoke from his home in Riyadh to say that he was “free” to move about the country and that he would return to Lebanon “very soon.”
“I am free in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If I want to leave tomorrow, I will leave tomorrow,” he told Saudi’s Future TV, a channel he owns. “I will go back to Lebanon very soon and will take all the necessary constitutional steps to resign,” he said, adding, “If I revoke my resignation, there should be respect for Lebanon.”
But the important thing to understand here isn’t about the fate of a single Lebanese politician. It’s that Hariri, willingly or unwillingly, helped provide cover for a government that is partly controlled by Iran-backed Hezbollah. Now that the cover is gone, it opens up a political vacuum that Hezbollah could exploit.
What’s more, that means Hariri’s announcement last week increases the chance of a conflict that could involve Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, and possibly Israel. And even if Riyadh and Tehran pull back from the brink, Beirut would still be reeling from a political crisis.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a cold war
To understand what’s happening in Lebanon right now, you first need to understand the cold war raging between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Iran’s government is a Shia Muslim theocracy; Saudi Arabia’s government is a monarchy closely aligned with the country’s Sunni Muslim religious establishment. The two countries represent two ideological and political poles and have spent decades fighting each other for dominance in the Middle East and for the right to represent the Muslim world.
But instead of openly waging war, Saudi and Iran back opposing political factions and extremist groups as a way of exerting influence and control. For example, this is playing out in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia — with US military assistance — is currently engaged in a brutal air war against Iranian-backed Houthi fighters. It’s possibly the world’s biggest humanitarian crisis, with more than 900,000 suffering from cholera and millions starving. This proxy war plays out in Syria and other parts of the Middle East — and now openly in Lebanon.
Another factor at play, experts told me, is the Trump administration’s openly pro-Saudi policies. That has included backing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during his ongoing purge of 11 princes and other members of the royal family.
“The Saudis see a massive opportunity in the Trump administration embracing them,” Bilal Saab, a security expert at the Middle East Institute, told me, adding that the White House supports Saudi efforts to “confront the Iranians.”
The Lebanon crisis is actually about defying Iran
Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, is a dual Saudi-Lebanese citizen with deep financial ties to Saudi Arabia. His family had owned a construction business there since the 1970s, but he was forced to close it earlier this year for financial reasons. And because he’s a Saudi national, much of the money he has left is still in Saudi Arabia — which gives Riyadh leverage over him.
“Saudi Arabia has basically seized all his assets,” Saab told me. “The suspicion is they’ve threatened to charge him with corruption and detain him forever unless he does whatever they want him to do.”
Hariri’s resignation is destabilizing in part because the Lebanese political system requires different religious groups to share power: Lebanon’s prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the president must be a Maronite Christian, and the parliamentary speaker must be a Shia Muslim. Saudi Arabia, as the regional Sunni leader, usually backs the prime minister — as it did with Hariri.
Iran, for its part, has a strong stake in Beirut’s politics: It supports Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shia militant group that is the country’s most powerful political and military organization.
Naturally, Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia don’t like each other. Saudi officials once referred to Hezbollah as “the party of the devil,” and Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s leader, called Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative brand of Sunni Islam “more evil than Israel.”
So as Lebanon looks to fill the power vacuum, there will likely be a political tug-of-war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. And if Iran has to focus on a protracted political crisis in Lebanon, it will have less time to focus on the wars in Yemen and Syria, Saab noted, which means Iran might not be able to fight Saudi Arabia’s proxies as aggressively.
There’s a real chance this could lead to open war
On November 6, two days after Hariri stepped down, Saudi Arabia claimed that Lebanon had declared war against it because of the alleged plot to kill Hariri and because a rocket shot from Yemen was aimed at the Riyadh airport. Riyadh blames Hezbollah and Iran for the launch.
Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan also said Hariri hadn’t done enough to counter Hezbollah, but said others had the ability to force the militant group to “return to the caves of South Lebanon.”
Nasrallah responded in a televised address last Friday, saying, “It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon.”
Despite these accusations, an actual Hezbollah-Saudi war is still unlikely. “Casting Lebanon as a Hezbollah-dominated pariah state does make waging a war simpler, so I think it’s safe to say the chance of such a war has increased,” Faysal Itani, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, told me. “But I don’t think it has increased dramatically, because no one seems willing to fight this war.”
Yet there is still a conflict worth worrying about, experts told me, as there is a possibility Hezbollah and Israel could fight.
It’s happened before. In 2006, Israel and Hezbollah battled in a month-long war where the militant group fired more than 4,000 rockets into Israel and Israeli forces fired around 7,000 bombs and missiles into Lebanon.
About 160 Israelis troops and civilians died, according to the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and about 1,100 Lebanese — most of them civilians — perished, according to Human Rights Watch. About 4,400 Lebanese were injured, and nearly 1 million people were displaced.
So if Hezbollah gains more political and military power in Lebanon as a result of the current instability, it will certainly raise concerns in Jerusalem.
The growing anxiety in the region may explain why French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Saudi Arabia on Thursday in an unscheduled two-hour visit to discuss the tensions between Beirut and Riyadh. France and Lebanon have a historically close relationship, as France was the ruling colonial power in Lebanon from the end of the Ottoman Empire until Lebanon’s independence in 1944. It’s unclear if Macron’s visit had any effect, though.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens to leave Lebanon. That’s the fourth time in five years that Riyadh has made such a request. Saudi allies Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates also requested that their citizens leave Lebanon.
So what may have at first seemed like a small political issue in Lebanon may turn into a wider Middle East quagmire. And that’s bad news for a region already in turmoil.
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