With Hariri in France, Trump and Macron discuss countering Iran, Hezbollah

White House says leaders discussed stopping Tehran’s ‘destabilizing activities in the region,’ as Hariri promises to return to Beirut

French President Emmanuel Macron, center right, and his wife Brigitte, right, greet Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, second left, his wife Lara, center left, and their son Hussam upon their arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, November 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
French President Emmanuel Macron, center right, and his wife Brigitte, right, greet Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri, second left, his wife Lara, center left, and their son Hussam upon their arrival at the Elysee Palace in Paris, November 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron spoke Saturday about the need to work with allies to counter Hezbollah and Iran the White House said, as a political crisis in the region continued to simmer following the surprise resignation of Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri during a trip to Saudi Arabia.

The Lebanon crisis and Iran’s role in the area was also expected to be discussed Sunday at a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo Sunday, at Saudi Arabia’s urging.

Hariri said Saturday that he will return home in the coming days from where he will declare a political stance for the first time since making the strange resignation announcement from Riyadh that unleashed fears of a crisis in Lebanon.

That announcement came as Hariri left for France after Macron invited the Lebanese leader to Paris to dispel fears that he was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will.

Shortly after, the White House said that Macron and Trump had addressed Lebanon and Syria during their phone call.

“Both presidents agreed on the need to work with allies to counter Hizballah’s and Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region,” a statement from the White House said.

Macron is seeking to calm tensions and avert a proxy conflict between Saudi-backed and Iranian-backed camps in Lebanon.

Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy group considered a terror organization by the US and Israel, is part of Hariri’s government. The group has accused Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US of forcing Hariri to resign and engineering the crisis.

Hariri’s appearance in Paris — looking relaxed and posing with his wife and older son on the steps of the Elysee Palace with the French presidential couple in front of a large crowd of journalists — contrasted with his limited-access, carefully choreographed appearances from Saudi Arabia.

Hariri told Lebanese President Michel Aoun on Saturday that he will take part in Independence Day celebrations in Beirut on Wednesday, according to Macron’s office.

After his meeting with Macron, Hariri told reporters: “God willing, I will attend Independence Day in Lebanon and will declare my political stance from Lebanon and after meeting President Michel Aoun.”

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri speaks after meeting with French President at the Elysee Presidential Palace on November 18, 2017 in Paris. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas Samson)

“As you know I have resigned and we will talk about this matter in Lebanon,” Hariri said after thanking Macron, who he added “expressed pure friendship toward me that I will never forget.”

The Independence Day ceremony is usually headed by the president, prime minister and parliament speaker, and Hariri’s presence could help calm uncertainties that have escalated since his strange and surprising resignation announcement on November 4 from Saudi Arabia.

However, Hariri’s political status is murky. Lebanon’s president refused to accept Hariri’s resignation, accusing the Saudis of holding him against his will.

A high official in Macron’s office said Hariri’s place is first in Beirut, “which is the only place where he can hand his resignation to the Lebanese head of state.”

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with French presidential policy, found it normal that Hariri would keep any announcement about his political stance for his fellow citizens.

Before leaving Riyadh, Hariri dismissed as “rumors” reports about his alleged detention in the kingdom.

In his November 4 televised resignation announcement, Hariri had cited Iran and Hezbollah for meddling in Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia. He also said he was afraid for his life.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri gives a live TV interview in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 12, 2017, saying he will return to his country “within days”. (Future TV via AP)

Saudi Arabia on Saturday asked its citizens for the second time in less than two weeks to leave Lebanon “as soon as possible” given the “circumstances” there. That raised fears of more punitive actions to come.

The French presidential official said it is essential that Lebanon be protected from “negative” foreign influences because the country needs stability and a strong state. The official didn’t name any specific nations but said Lebanon should be protected from the “dangers that regional crises can pose to it.”

Just before leaving Saudi Arabia, Hariri met with the Saudi crown prince and other senior officials, according to a member of Hariri’s political party and two Lebanese television stations.

Hariri’s exact next steps after his planned visit to Lebanon are unclear. A French official said Saturday that France is offering Hariri the necessary support during this time of political turmoil in his country. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

Macron said he received Hariri “with the honors due a prime minister,” even though he has announced his resignation, since Lebanon hasn’t yet recognized it.

While Macron insists that he’s not offering “exile,” Hariri’s return could be complicated by Lebanon’s internal tensions.

During a phone call on Saturday morning, Macron and Aoun spoke about a return of Hariri to Lebanon that could help make Lebanese institutions “function normally again,” the French presidential official said.

It’s part of a broader Macron strategy to reassert French influence in the region, while the United States under Trump is increasingly seen as unpredictable or disengaged. Macron’s office says France’s strategy is to talk to all powers in the region and not to appear as choosing a camp.

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