Saad Hariri’s resignation as Lebanese prime minister could lead to an extended crisis in the country with neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia achieving their preferred outcomes, analysts told Al Jazeera.
Hariri quit in a televised speech while in Saudi Arabia on Saturday, just 11 months into his second stint as premier, plunging the country into uncertainty.
Blaming Iran for causing “disorder and destruction” in Lebanon, he lashed out at Hezbollah, the Islamic Republic’s main ally in the country, as “Iran’s arm”.
However, the group rejects the reason given for the departure.
In the aftermath of the resignation, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah expressed incredulity at Hariri’s speech and accused Riyadh of forcing him to step down.
The resignation was a Saudi order, forced upon him and was not his wish or his desire
Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Hezbollah
“The resignation was a Saudi order, forced upon him and was not his wish or his desire,” Nasrallah said. “We know how Prime Minister Hariri talks and his political phrases, this was unlike him.”
Lebanese journalist Ibrahim Awad shares Nasrallah’s scepticism, pointing out that Hariri’s speech stood in stark contrast to his recent behaviour.
Awad said just two days before his resignation, Hariri met Ali Akbar Velayati, an influential former Iranian foreign minister who is close to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.
“The sequence of events and the meetings that took place before Hariri’s resignation do not make any sense,” Awad told Al Jazeera.
“You can’t meet [an] Iranian leader [one day] and the next day you demand to cut off Iran’s hand in Lebanon,” he added.
Irrespective of the circumstances of the resignation, Lebanon must deal with the complicated reality of finding Hariri’s replacement and preventing the collapse of the government.
According to Lebanon’s constitution, the office of prime minister must be held by a Sunni.
The difficulty for Hezbollah is to find a Sunni politician, who is willing to risk the ire of many in their wider community, by taking on the role of prime minister – and someone that can work with the group itself.
Halim Shebaya, a political analyst at the Lebanese American University, said that Hezbollah will find it “practically impossible” to find a Sunni politician to take up the office without Saudi Arabia’s backing.
“While there are some less prominent Sunni leaders who are close to the party, it will be a huge gamble to go ahead in such a course of action since it would likely escalate tensions, with the possibility of witnessing street demonstrations,” he said.
Without Hariri’s Future Movement joining the government, one option according to Shebaya is “a technocratic government that could be headed by former prime ministers Najib Mikati or Tammam Salam with the sole aim of taking the country forward to next summer’s elections”.
But Shebaya said such a scenario is unlikely at the moment: “We don’t know anything for certain yet since we are still waiting for Hariri to return to Lebanon, but it seems likely that Lebanon will witness an extended governmental crisis unless mediation efforts are successful.”
The political crisis in Lebanon comes amid deteriorating relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, both countries with vested financial and political interests in the country.
Saudi Arabia blamed Iran for supplying Houthi rebels in Yemen with the ballistic missile it intercepted north of Riyadh on Saturday, an incident it described as an “act of war”.
That anger extended to Iran’s ally Hezbollah and to Lebanon itself with Saudi officials calling the former the “party of the devil” and accusing the latter of declaring war against it.
[The Saudis] have played their trump card in some ways, and they’re definitely at risk of having overplayed their hand, because now the question is what else is left to do?
Christian Henderson, Leiden University
While the lack of Saudi backing makes reaching a political compromise harder, the country may have played its best hand too early, leaving it with few options for further action, according to Leiden University academic and Middle East analyst, Christian Henderson.
“[The Saudis] have played their trump card in some ways, and they’re definitely at risk of having overplayed their hand, because now the question is what else is left to do?” Henderson asked.
“One of the main ways Saudi Arabia can put pressure on Lebanon is by withdrawing money from the country’s banking system,” he added, explaining that such a move would probably create more space for Iran to exert influence with financial help.
Iran for its part has adopted a publicly conciliatory tone on Lebanon and its President Hassan Rouhani has pledged not to let the country become an “arena for conflict”.
“Iran will always stand by the Lebanese people and will spare no effort to contribute to consolidating Lebanon’s stability and firmness, the Iranian president told his Lebanese counterpart Michel Aoun in a phone call on Wednesday, according to Lebanon’s state news agency.