Arabiya claims Hariri was target of assassination plot
BEIRUT: A handout picture shows Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri (right) meeting Iran’s Supreme Leader’s advisor Ali Akbar Velayati (second right) at the Government Palace on Friday. – AFP
BEIRUT: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation yesterday, citing Iran’s “grip” on the country and threats to his life. The surprise move risks plunging the small and already fragile Middle Eastern country deeper into turmoil. “I announce my resignation from the post of prime minister,” Hariri said in a speech broadcast from Saudi Arabia by the Al-Arabiya news network. “I felt what was being covertly plotted to target my life,” he said.
Hariri’s personal security concerns appeared to gain little traction among the public. Social media were flooded with messages deriding him for choosing to resign from abroad and on a foreign channel. The two-time premier, whose father Rafik held the same position for years and was assassinated in 2005, accused Iran and its powerful Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah of seeking hegemony in the region.
The Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath television channel reported that an assassination plot against Saad Al-Hariri was foiled in Beirut days ago, citing an unnamed source. Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces (ISF), responding to reports that one of its branches had foiled an assassination attempt on Hariri, denied that it was the source of the reports and said it “had no information on this”. “Those who planned to assassinate prime minister Hariri deactivated the observation towers while his motorcade was passing by,” Arabiya cited the source as saying.
The 47-year-old Sunni politician’s resignation comes less than a year after his government, to which Hezbollah’s political wing belongs, was formed. “Iran has a grip on the fate of the region’s countries… Hezbollah is Iran’s arm not just in Lebanon but in other Arab countries too,” Hariri said. He accused Tehran of “sowing discord among the children of the same nation and creating a state within the state… to the extent that it gets the final say on how Lebanon’s affairs are run”. Iran dismissed his accusations as “unfounded”. Hariri’s “repetition of unreal and baseless accusations… against Iran show that the resignation is designed to create tensions in Lebanon and in the region”, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said.
Hariri also had harsh words for Hezbollah. “In recent years, Hezbollah has used the power of its weapons to impose a fait accompli,” he said, reading a speech from behind a desk. Hezbollah is a vital ally of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the war the Damascus regime is waging against the Islamic State group and armed opposition movements. It enjoys broad support from Iran and is the only Lebanese party to have kept its weapons after the 1975-1990 civil war.
Hezbollah’s arsenal has since grown exponentially and now outstrips that of the nation’s own armed forces. The group claims it is the only credible rampart against neighboring Israel, and its refusal to disarm is the main political crux in Lebanon. Hezbollah members have been accused over the 2005 assassination in a massive car bomb blast of Rafik Hariri, the dominant figure in Lebanon’s post-war political landscape. He made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, where his son Saad was born.
Saudi Arabia is Iran’s main regional rival, and the two powers’ tussle for influence has played out in ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. The office of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a veteran Christian leader allied to Hezbollah, issued a statement saying it was waiting for Hariri’s return to Lebanon “to enquire about the circumstances of his decision and decide on the next steps”. Aoun’s office said Hariri had called him from “outside Lebanon” to inform him of his resignation.
Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia on Friday after a meeting in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Afterwards, Velayati described Hariri’s coalition as “a victory” and “great success”. Hariri said in his speech that the political climate in Lebanon was reminiscent of that which prevailed before his father was killed. The Feb 2005 assassination triggered political upheaval that led to Syria’s military withdrawal from Lebanon.
Walid Jumblatt, one of Lebanon’s political heavyweights and the country’s most prominent Druze leader, said Hariri’s resignation could adversely affect a country already under huge strain. He argued it was the latest manifestation of the tug-of-war between Saudi Arabia and Iran and called for intensifying diplomatic efforts to solve the feud. “Lebanon is too small and vulnerable to bear the economic and political burden that comes with this resignation,” he said on social media. “I will continue to call for dialogue between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”
Even as he resigned, Hariri warned his foes: “Our nation will rise just as it did before and the hands that want to harm it will be cut.” “Hariri’s resignation was done with planning by Donald Trump, the president of America, and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, to destabilize the situation in Lebanon and the region,” said Hussein Sheikh Al-Islam, adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, in remarks to a state broadcaster. Saudi Arabia’s influential Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer Al-Sabhan echoed the language of the Lebanese politician saying in a tweet: “The hands of treachery and aggression must be cut off.”
Earlier last week, Sabhan sharply criticized Hezbollah, calling for its “toppling” and promising “astonishing developments” in the coming days during an interview with the Lebanese TV station MTV. Sabhan met with Hariri in Saudi Arabia when the now resigned prime minister was visiting earlier this week. Hariri abruptly returned to the kingdom later Friday before his bombshell announcement yesterday. In tweets after meeting Hariri, Sabhan described it as “long and fruitful meeting” that resulted in agreements over many issues that concern the Lebanese. “What’s coming is better, God willing,” Sabhan tweeted on Tuesday. In a series of tweets, Sabhan criticized the Lebanese government for tolerating Hezbollah’s criticism of the kingdom. He earlier said that those who cooperate with Hezbollah must be “punished”.
Lebanese political analyst Hilal Khashan argued that Saudi Arabia had been piling the pressure on its protege lately and “summoned” him to Riyadh. He said Hariri’s move could start “a cold war in Lebanon that could escalate into a civil war” or even a regional offensive on Hezbollah. It is unclear who could replace Hariri at this stage. Under a power-sharing system that helped end Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, the president must be a Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker a Shiite. – Agencies