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Middle East

Tillerson warns Saudis, Iran on stability in Lebanon

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 November, 2017, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 November, 2017, 10:31am

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Friday called on “all parties both within Lebanon and outside” to back off from actions that could threaten that country’s stability, a warning that senior administration officials said was directed at Saudi Arabia as well as at Iran and Hezbollah.

“The United States cautions against any party … using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country,” Tillerson said in a statement issued by the State Department.

The US, Saudi Arabia and Israel share concern about expanding Iranian influence in the region. Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based proxy, now controls significant territory in Syria, near its border with Israel, and in Lebanon. While some Israeli officials have voiced support for moving to constrain Hezbollah, others have urged caution.

Saudi allies such as Egypt have strongly opposed military action against Iran or Hezbollah.

“We have to deal with great care so as not to add to the challenges and troubles of the region,” Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi told reporters this week. “I am against war.”

Renewed conflict inside Lebanon, where a fragile peace has been maintained for nearly a decade, could endanger the Trump administration’s goal of forging an Israeli-Palestinian settlement and complicate the fight against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Steps leading to the current crisis began last Saturday, when the Saudis accused Iran and Hezbollah of carrying out an “act of war” with a missile they said was fired at Riyadh by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen.

On the same day, Saudi-backed Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who shares power with Hezbollah in an uneasy coalition government, suddenly appeared in the Saudi capital and abruptly announced his resignation from office. The announcement threw Lebanon into confusion and raised fears of war.

On Thursday, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait ordered their citizens out of Lebanon, saying their safety was at risk.

The Saudis have suggested that Hariri was escaping a Hezbollah assassination plot.

In Lebanon, political leaders from differing factions called on Hariri to return and address his political situation from Beirut. His Future Movement political bloc says it does not recognise the resignation.

Hezbollah, which is both a militant group and a political force, has called Hariri’s resignation illegal because it was done from afar. Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah said on Friday that the Saudis had kidnapped Hariri and “asked Israel to attack Lebanon”.

On Friday, France also urged Hariri to return and said he must have “all his freedom of movement”, becoming the first Western nation to publicly suggest Hariri is in detention.

The prime minister had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia before his return last year to politics and the job once held by his assassinated father, Rafiq.

Saad Hariri’s abrupt arrival in Saudi Arabia is seen by many in Lebanon as a blunt signal from Riyadh that he had not done enough to rebuff Hezbollah and Iranian influence, and that Saudi Arabia intends to assert its influence in Lebanon against Iran.

US and European diplomats have met Hariri in Riyadh, but a senior administration official, asked whether Hariri was free to leave Saudi Arabia, said, “We don’t know.” In conversations with diplomats, the official said, “there is a question mark as to his ability to speak freely”.

Alongside the Hariri drama, Saudi authorities also announced the arrest last Saturday of more than 200 princes, senior officials and prominent Saudi business executives.

Cast as part of a domestic anti-corruption drive, the arrests also left Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in undisputed control of Saudi security services. That may be an attempt to consolidate power before eventually inheriting the throne.

Trump, travelling in Asia, tweeted strong support for the arrests, saying he had “great confidence in King Salman and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, they know exactly what they are doing.” Since visiting Riyadh in May, the president has repeatedly praised Salman as the leader of the Arab world and a bulwark against Iranian expansion.