Lebanese Prime Minster Says He’s Returning From Saudi Arabia, Easing Mideast Tensions For Now

REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

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Will Racke Immigration and Foreign Policy Reporter
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Lebanon’s former prime minister Saad al-Hariri, who resigned from his post on Nov. 4 while in Saudi Arabia, moved Tuesday to reassure Lebanese citizens that he was fine and would return within the next two days.

Hariri urged people to “calm down” over his resignation, an apparent attempt to ease tensions that have threatened to boil over into open conflict between the Mideast’s dominant powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

“I am perfectly fine, and God willing, I will return in a day or two,” Hariri announced on Twitter, according to a translation from intelligence analyst Ali Soufan. “Let us calm down. My family is staying in their country the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the kingdom of goodness.”

Hariri’s unexpected resignation earlier this month drew Lebanon into the middle of an escalating power struggle between Riyadh and Tehran. Many Lebanese political leaders said Hariri was forced to quit under pressure from Riyadh and suggested he was being detained in Saudi Arabia against his will.

Hariri, who holds dual Lebanese and Saudi citizenship, denied he was under duress and accused Iran and Hezbollah of stoking tensions in the region. Part of a joint government that includes Hezbollah, Hariri has previously criticized Tehran of maligning influence in Lebanon, chiefly through its support of the hybrid political party and Islamic terrorist group.

Like his Saudi backers, Hariri is a Sunni Muslim and has had warm relations with the kingdom in the past. His resignation prompted Hezbollah, a Shiite group, to accuse Saudi Arabia of declaring war on Lebanon.

Because Tehran is allied with Hezbollah, the episode plunged Lebanon into crisis and threatened to bring rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia closer to war. Tensions were already high after Saudi Arabia last week intercepted a ballistic missile fired from Yemen by Iranian-linked Houthi rebels.

Though the U.S. has moved increasingly closer to Riyadh as part of a broader strategy to contain Iran, the Trump administration last week warned outside countries against using Lebanon as a proxy battleground for Mideast dominance. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Washington strongly backed Lebanon’s independence and reaffirmed Hariri as a strong partner of the U.S.

“There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state,” Tillerson said in a statement, according to Reuters.

Before his announcement Tuesday, Hariri had said he would officially resign when he goes back to Beirut. In an interview from his home in Riyadh, he also entertained the idea of returning to office if Lebanon committed to stay neutral in regional conflicts, reports Bloomberg.

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