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Lebanon emerges from crisis with Iran on top, but risks remain

Lebanon emerges from crisis with Iran on top, but risks remain
From Reuters - December 7, 2017

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Irans allies in Lebanon have emerged even stronger from a crisis triggered by Saudi Arabia, which achieved little more than to force the Saudis main Lebanese ally - Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri - closer to Tehrans friends in Beirut.

Saudi Arabia aimed to hurt Iran in Lebanon by forcing Hariris resignation on Nov. 4 and torpedoing his coalition deal with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies, using its influence over the Sunni leader to cause trouble for the Shiite group.

Instead, the move backfired as Western states censured Riyadh over a step they feared would destabilize Lebanon, despite their shared concerns over the regional role of the heavily armed Hezbollah.

Hariri revoked his resignation on Tuesday, drawing a line under the crisis caused by his announcement from Riyadh. Lebanese officials say he was put under house arrest before French intervention led to his return home. Riyadh and Hariri deny this.

But while the crisis has abated, its causes - Hezbollahs growing military influence in the region and Saudi Arabias determination to counter Iran - seem likely to bring more trouble Lebanons way sooner or later.

Hariri has identified possible Gulf Arab sanctions as a major risk to the Lebanese economy. Analysts also see a risk of another war with Hezbollahs old foe, Israel, which is alarmed by the groups strength in Lebanon and Syria.

The episode also leaves big questions over Lebanese politics, long influenced by Saudi Arabia, a patron of the Lebanese Sunni community.

One senior Lebanese politician said the experience had left a big scar on Hariri, once the the spiritual son of Saudi Arabia. After this, it will not be easy to have a normal relationship again.

Meeting on Tuesday for the first time since the resignation, Hariris government indirectly acknowledged Saudi concerns over Hezbollahs role outside Lebanon. At Hariris behest, it reaffirmed its policy of staying out of Arab conflicts.

A top Lebanese official said Western pressure forced Saudi Arabia to retreat from its Lebanon plan but further Saudi moves could not be ruled out: Can we restrain Saudi from going toward madness? In my view, no.

A Western diplomat said Saudi measures targeting the Lebanese economy were a genuine possibility at some point though the international community would likely try to influence how tough any sanctions would be.

I think the Saudis have understood from the international reaction that Lebanon isnt a pitch on which they are playing alone. There are other players who have interests who dont want to see those undermined, the diplomat said.

At the same time, the international communitys patience isnt unlimited.It will be hard to protect Lebanon indefinitely if there is no tangible progress on rolling back Hezbollah.

NASRALLAH SEEN SOFTENING RHETORIC

Hezbollah was the only group allowed to keep its weapons at the end of Lebanons 1975-90 civil war to fight Israeli forces occupying southern Lebanon.

Its militia has been a source of controversy in Lebanon since the Israeli withdrawal of 2000.

With Saudi backing, Hariri led a Lebanese political alliance to confront the group, but that resulted in Hezbollahs takeover of Beirut in 2008 during a brief civil war.

WESTERN INTERESTS

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