Just Another Pawn: Lebanon in the Saudi-Iran Conflict

Jesse Martin

November, 2017

Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri

Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri


The world has witnessed confusion, accusations, and volatility with Saad Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon, and his November 4th resignation – signalling another Saudi-Iran scuffle. Now, with him back in Beirut, there may be some clarity on the subject: this was another move by Saudi Arabia to assert its dominance over Iran.

To fully understand the scope of the Saudi-Iran conflict, one must look back over a millennium. Since the death of the Prophet Muhammed, a Sunni-Shia divide has led to conflicts throughout the Middle East.

While these religious differences are unmistakeable, they are not to be overstated. More important, is the history since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The Middle East witnessed a Western-backed, largely secular leader be toppled, and replaced by an Islamic Republic. Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution and newly installed Supreme Leader, declared Iran the new religious leader of the Middle East, countering Saudi Arabia’s decades’ old claim.

Iran has continued to back Shia militias and governments to undermine Saudi Arabia’s power in the region. In 1987, clashes between Shia pilgrims and Saudi Arabian security forces in Mecca killed hundreds of Iranian pilgrims, leading Saudi Arabia to suspend diplomatic ties. In addition, when Saudi-backed Saddam Hussein was overthrown by the United States, a Shia-led government was formed. During the Arab Spring of 2011 both Saudi Arabia and Iran backed opposing sides throughout various countries in attempt to maintain dominance.

Most recently, Saudi Arabia has taken numerous measures to increase their power under the influence of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. They have intervened in the Yemen’s Civil War; arrested seemingly untouchable royals in a power grab; alienated Qatar because of its relationship with Iran; and modernized its economy. Mr. Hariri’s resignation is just the latest part of the Saudi’s strategy.

Lebanon, like other states Saudi Arabia has meddled in, is perceived to be falling into Iran’s sphere of influence. This is largely due to the influence of Hezbollah, a political party-cum-terrorist organization that is heavily backed by Iran. In government, Hezbollah controls the parliament and President Michel Aoun is pro-Hezbollah, leaving Mr. Hariri as the sole power backed by Saudi Arabia.

There has been speculation that Saudi Arabia is either dissatisfied with Mr. Hariri’s leadership, or that they would prefer him to run in the parliamentary elections to form an opposition to Hezbollah.

Regardless of the motive, his resignation was largely viewed as coerced by Saudi Arabia. While his visit to Saudi Arabia was not unusual, his resignation was markedly off from his usual pragmatic-self. He then disappeared for a week, increasing belief that Saudi Arabia did not just force the resignation, but was detaining him. With the likelihood of another conflict looming and calls from Lebanese officials for his return, Mr. Hariri reappeared in an interview hinting that he may rescind his resignation if Saudi demands were met.

Thereafter, accepting President Macron’s invitation, he visited him in Paris. Afterwards, he flew to Egypt and Cyprus to assure his allies of Lebanon’s resistance to Iranian influence. Meanwhile, the Saudis attempted to gather support at an Arab League meeting on November 19th. They accused Hezbollah of supporting terrorists and Iran of destabilizing the region. The Lebanese President refuted the bellicose accusations.

Since November 21st, Mr. Hariri has returned to Lebanon and has decided to rescind his resignation – for now. One result produced was a statement from Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah: to withdraw fighters from Iraq once the Islamic State is defeated and an invitation for “any dialogue and any discussion”.

While the past three weeks have increased fragility in Lebanon, it serves as a microcosm for Saudi Arabia’s current foreign and domestic policy. Saudi Arabia’s aggressive policies have coincided with the signing of the Iranian Nuclear Deal, and have accelerated since President Trump has shown near-absolute devotion to Saudi plans.

It is difficult to fully understand Saudi goals because of their speed, but so far many of their policies have not come to fruition. Their intervention into Yemen has lasted almost three years with no clear resolution in sight. Furthermore, the war has devastated Yemen to such an extent that it may become one of the largest humanitarian crises in recent memory.

The Prince’s crackdown on other royals and the sacking of thousands of Imams has consolidated his power. However, such rapid consolidation of power can backfire if not sustained with authoritative force. 

The economy is also a cause for concern. The recent modernization has led to cuts in social spending, an important pillar in keeping the people of Saudi Arabia appeased. Further, the purge of officials has disincentivized foreign investors, afraid of the Prince’s penchant for unwarranted arrests. Moreover, Saudi’s alienation of Qatar has fractured the Gulf Cooperation Council and expanded Qatar’s relationship with Iran.

Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies have been extensive, rapid, and aggressive. Either it has overextended itself, or it believes that the new administration in the United States will back them – no matter what.

Currently, it appears as though Iran has not been affected. The war in Yemen has costed Saudi Arabia vastly more than it has Iran. Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on Imams has bolstered Iran’s appearance as the religious leader in the Middle East. Additionally, the situation in Lebanon has done little to affect Iran. Instead, Iran has strengthened a land corridor with Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Lebanon is just the latest move on the Middle East chessboard. A pawn, in a complicated game with no end in sight.