Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri resigned from his post Saturday during a trip to Saudi Arabia less than a year after taking office, in a surprise move that plunged the country into uncertainty amid heightened regional tensions.
In a televised address from Riyadh, Hariri said he feared for his life: “We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assassination of martyr Rafik Hariri” — Saad’s father, a former prime minister who was assassinated in 2005, allegedly by Hezbollah. “I am aware of what is being plotted to target my life,” he said.
Hariri fired a vicious tirade against Iran and Hezbollah for what he said was their meddling in Arab affairs and said “Iran’s arms in the region will be cut off.
“The evil that Iran spreads in the region will backfire on it,” Hariri said, accusing Tehran of spreading chaos, strife and destruction throughout 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 was appointed prime minister in late 2016 and headed a 30-member national unity cabinet that included the Shiite terror group Hezbollah. The government has largely succeeded in protecting the country from the effects of the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The country is sharply divided along a camp loyal to Saudi Arabia, headed by the Sunni Muslim Hariri, and a camp loyal to Iran represented by Hezbollah. President Michel Aoun, who was elected in October 2016 after more than two years of presidential vacuum, is a close ally of Hezbollah.
His election was made possible after Hariri endorsed him for president, based on an understanding that Aoun would then appoint him as prime minister.
In a statement, the presidential office said Aoun was informed by Hariri in a phone call of his resignation, adding that the president now awaits Hariri’s return to the country to clarify the circumstances of his resignation and proceed accordingly.
Hezbollah is a vital ally of Syrian President Bashar 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.
Hariri’s bombshell resignation Saturday was expected to raise tensions in the country and ushers in a stage of deep uncertainty and potential instability. It comes amid a sharp escalation in Saudi rhetoric against its regional archrival Iran.
Several Hezbollah members are being tried in absentia for the killing by a UN-backed tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Hezbollah denies any involvement.
Hariri said Hezbollah’s policies have put Lebanon “in the eye of the storm.” His attacks on Hezbollah come on the heels of new US sanctions on the group that many fear will impact negatively on the Lebanese economy.
“Hezbollah was able in past decades to impose a status quo in Lebanon through its weapons directed at the chests of Syrians and Lebanese,” he said.
“I declare my resignation from the premiership of the Lebanese government, with the certainty that the will of the Lebanese is strong,” Hariri said.
“When I took office, I promised you that I would seek to unite the Lebanese, end political division and establish the principle of self-sufficiency, but I have been unable to do so. Despite my efforts, Iran continues to abuse Lebanon,” he said.
Earlier this week, Saudi State Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-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.
Al-Sabhan met with Hariri in Saudi Arabia when the now resigned prime minister was visiting first earlier this week. Hariri abruptly returned to the kingdom later Friday before his bombshell announcement Saturday.
In tweets after meeting Hariri, al-Sabhan described it as “long and fruitful meeting” that resulted in agreements over many issues that concern the Lebanese. “What comes is better, God willing,” al-Sabhan tweeted on Tuesday. In a series of tweets, al-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.”
In September Hariri denied Israeli assertions that Iran has established weapons factories in Lebanon for the Hezbollah terror group, saying the allegations were part of a “disinformation campaign” by Israel.
“The Israelis know very well that there are no missile factories in Lebanon. They are used to running these disinformation campaigns,” Hariri told the French daily Le Monde in an interview.
Israel has said Tehran is working to establish footholds in Lebanon and Syria with which to attack Israel.