France and Egypt are trying to shape a regional accommodation between Iran and Saudi Arabia in a bid to prevent Lebanon from being destabilized.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was to meet Tuesday with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo before heading back Wednesday to Beirut — the first time he will have set foot in Lebanon since his abrupt resignation on November 4 while on a visit to Saudi Arabia.
In a pre-recorded television announcement in Riyadh, Hariri cited Iran’s meddling in the region as the key reason for his resignation.
Hariri is widely believed to have been compelled to resign by his Saudi patrons, who appear determined to curtail the power of the radical Shi’ite movement Hezbollah, Iran’s ally, in Lebanon. Hariri is expected to resign formally on arriving in Beirut, forcing the country’s reluctant president, Michel Aoun, to accept it this time, plunging Lebanon deeper into a political crisis and increasing tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The frenetic diplomatic maneuvering around Hariri’s mysterious resignation just weeks after he formed a coalition government with Hezbollah features a cast of powerful characters and countries with competing agendas.
On Monday, a senior Israeli minister, Yuval Steinitz, acknowledged publicly that joint enmity for Iran has pushed Israel and Saudi Arabia closer and that the two states, which do not enjoy formal diplomatic relations, had established “partly secret” ties to counter Iran’s influence in the region.
At the center of the crisis are two young untested national leaders - Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who appears set on pushing back against Iran’s rising power in the region, and French President Emmanuel Macron, who has grabbed the mantle of Middle East mediator.
The French leader is being credited by his officials with having persuaded the Saudi crown prince to allow Hariri to leave the Gulf kingdom and visit Paris last week. There are conflicting stories about whether Hariri was being held unwillingly in Saudi Arabia.
French officials say Macron is trying to defuse Lebanon's political crisis and rein in Saudi Arabia and Iran by leveraging France's trade relations in the region, as well as its historical ties to Lebanon, a former French protectorate. And they say there has already been some success in Macron’s efforts, pointing to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announcing Monday that the militant group will pull out of Iraq once the Islamic State terror group has been defeated.
“If there is no need for them in Iraq anymore, we will withdraw them and send them to areas where they are needed,” Nasrallah said.
The complexity of clashing agendas around the locked-in feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran could well defeat Macron’s efforts, say analysts, especially if the 32-year-old Saudi crown prince is determined to use Lebanon as another front in efforts to curb Iran’s growing regional influence.
“It remains to be seen whether a regional accommodation can be found to enable the formation of a new Lebanese government and enable Lebanon to avoid a further escalation of the crisis,” says Paul Salem, an analyst at the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based policy research group.
Taking on Iran in Lebanon is a risky gambit by the crown prince, which could backfire, according to other analysts. They question whether there is a good, realistic endgame when it comes to confronting Hezbollah in Lebanon and say Mohammed bin Salman is over-reaching and could well end up weakening Saudi Arabia’s influence in Lebanon.
“Pressuring Saad Hariri to resign and confront Hezbollah marks a landmark shift in Saudi policy” in Lebanon, according to Joe Macaron, a policy analyst at the Arab Center, a U.S.-based research group.
Historically, Riyadh’s policy in Lebanon has been restricted to one of mediating between rivals and the Saudis have been most effective in Lebanese politics when acting as a junior partner to the United States or Lebanon’s neighbor Syria, rather than in the forefront, he said in an article for the website Al Monitor. Saudi influence in Lebanon has been based more on economic power rather than political clout, he adds.
There are signs that this may belatedly be understood now by the Saudis. Hariri’s trips to Paris and Cairo may be an indication of Riyadh’s readiness to negotiate an accommodation, most likely one built around Iran reducing its support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen, where the Saudis have found themselves increasingly caught in a military quagmire, say analysts.
In a November 12 interview with a Lebanese TV affiliate of his political party, Hariri at one point suggested he might rescind his resignation, if Hezbollah committed to halting involvement in conflicts in the region, citing specifically the war in Yemen.
Whether French and Egyptian diplomacy is working will become apparent quickly. Saudi officials have talked of ramping up pressure on Hezbollah by withdrawing Saudi deposits from Lebanese banks and expelling more than a quarter of a million Lebanese nationals who work in the Gulf kingdom and send remittances back home. If they hold off from doing so, that would indicate an accommodation may be taking shape.