Lebanon's PM in shock resignation, says Iran seeking total control
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation Saturday, citing Iran's "grip" on the country and threats to his life, in a dramatic announcement likely to inflame tensions across the Middle East.
Hariri made the surprising declaration in a TV appearance during a trip to Saudi Arabia, likely signalling a new push by Riyadh to influence politics in Lebanon, a country long-divided along sectarian lines.
"I announce my resignation from the post of prime minister," he said in a speech broadcast by the Al-Arabiya news network. "I felt what was being covertly plotted to target my life," Hariri said.
The two-time prime minister, 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 total control over the region.
"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," he said.
"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.
Hariri 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’s arms in the region will be cut off," he was quoted as saying by the Associated Press, “the evil that Iran spreads in the region will backfire on it.”
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.
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.
Hezbollah is a vital ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the war the Syrian 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.
Its arsenal has since grown exponentially and now outstrips that of the nation's own armed forces.
It claims it is the only credible rampart against neighboring Israel and its refusal to disarm is the main political crux in Lebanon.
Shortly after Hariri said in his speech that he feared for his life, Al Arabiya reported that a plan to assassinate Hariri as he drove through the Beirut was thwarted "a few days ago," citing unspecified sources.
The channel is considered very close to Riyadh.
Lebanon's Internal Security Forces Directorate swiftly issued a statement denying any involvement with or awareness of the reported murder plot.
"It is important for this Directorate to make it clear that what is being circulated is not issued by it or by the Information Branch," a statement published in Lebanese media said in reference to reports on Saudi media and social networks. "Therefore, it is not the source of the news, and does not have any information about it."
Hezbollah members have been accused over the 2005 assassination in a massive car bomb blast of Saad's father, Rafik Hariri, who was then the dominant figure of Lebanon's post-war political landscape.
He made his fortune in Saudi Arabia, where his son was born. Riyadh is Iran's main regional rival and the two powers' tussle for influence has played out in ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Impact of resignation
The office of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, a veteran Christian leader allied to Hezbollah, issued a statement confirming Hariri had tendered his resignation.
"President Aoun is waiting for Hariri's return to Beirut to enquire about the circumstances of his decision and decide on the next steps," a statement said.
Hariri said in his speech that the political climate in Lebanon was reminiscent of that which prevailed before his father was killed.
The February 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."
After the end of the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted to the news, calling it a "wake up call" to the world that they need to rein in Iran's regional ambitions.
"The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri and his remarks are a wake-up call to the international community to take action against the Iranian aggression that is trying to turn Syria into a second Lebanon," Netanyahu said in a statement.
Israel fought a devastating war against Hezbollah in 2006, and occupied the south of country from 1982 to 2000. It has frequently carried out air strikes against weapons in Syria that it deemed destined for the group.
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