Lebanon will never be an “Iranian province,” the country’s former prime minister Saad Hariri vowed on Sunday in comments aimed to defy the growing influence of Hezbollah in the country.
Hariri, who heads the Al-Mustaqbal movement, spoke at a rally in Beirut marking the eleventh year since the assassination of his father, then-prime minister Rafik Hariri, in a massive explosion in Beirut in 2005.
Hariri and international investigators have said they believe the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group and the Assad regime in Syria were involved in the assassination. Hariri’s comments on Iran didn’t name Hezbollah, but none in Lebanon could miss the target of his criticism.
“The Lebanese presidency is more important than the presidency in Syria, Iraq or Yemen,” he said in an implicit criticism of the group’s involvement on behalf of Iran and Syrian President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, as well as in support of Shiite militias and rebels in Iraq and Yemen.
Hariri now lives in self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia and France.
The 2005 assassination further widened the sectarian divide between Lebanon’s warring religious factions.
Saad Hariri’s Sunday visit was only his third to Lebanon since the Hezbollah-dominated “March 8 Alliance” toppled his cabinet in 2011.
Hariri, who is backed by Riyadh, framed Iranian inroads into the country as an ethnic contest, saying “We will not allow anyone to pull Lebanon to the camp of hostility towards Saudi Arabia and its Arab brothers. Lebanon will not be, under any circumstances, an Iranian province. We are Arabs, and Arabs we shall remain,” Reuters reported.
Lebanon has been without a president since the term of Michel Suleiman ended on May 25, 2014 and Hezbollah and some of its allies have boycotted political negotiations to establish a new government.
AP contributed to this report.