However, there are concerns that as long as Hariri stays in Saudi Arabia, Iranian interests gain strength with the Lebanese Hezbollah. Many hope that Hariri will soon return to Beirut with U.S. and French support. It is believed that Hariri plans to travel to France this week and is expected travel to Beirut afterwards.
It is reported that Hariri’s Lebanese opponents claim that Saudi Arabia won’t allow him to leave because it wants to disrupt Lebanon’s democracy. According to the BBC, Lebanese President Michel Aoun, tweeted that “Nothing justifies the failure of Prime Minister Hariri to return for 12 days. Therefore, we consider him to be held and detained, in violation of the Vienna Convention and human rights law.”
In his opinion piece for the Washington Examiner, journalist Tom Rogan explains the concerns, “Under the Lebanese constitution, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the parliament speaker a Shia Muslim, and the president a Christian. And while Hariri is pro-western/pro-Saudi Sunni Muslim, Iran and Hezbollah have close allies in the form of President Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri. Correspondingly, if Iran can get a Sunni puppet figure to replace Hariri in the prime minister’s office, they’ll control the executive branch.”
Rogan believes that Iran is on the offensive, with Bashar Assad’s consolidation in Syria, the advance of its militia forces in Iraq, and economic benefits it gained under the nuclear deal. He writes, “Iran senses opportunity. But if we’re clever, we can stop them.”
Hariri’s Future Movement party is said to have twice as many Parliamentary seats as Hezbollah, so Harari is likely viewed as an obstacle by Iran. Rogan writes, “Hariri’s vulnerability is also based on his close relationship with the Saudis. That makes him a target for Iranian assassination as a means by which to send a message to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. From Hariri’s perspective the risk is a personal one: his father was killed by Assad and Hezbollah for the sin of serving Lebanese democracy.”
However, in Rogan’s opinion, the U.S. and France can lead an effort to strengthen Hariri’s position, and act more aggressively against Iranian and Hezbollah interests in Beirut. It will require some risk taking for Iran to understand that they will face consequences for their behavior. This may include a pledge by the U.S. and France, that they will take unilateral action against those who threaten Hariri with harm.
He says as well, that Lebanese military units that would oppose Hezbollah may need support for any attempt to remove its enemies from power. Some Lebanese special forces are well trained, and have longstanding ties to the west. In fact, the head of the Lebanese Army has taken four separate training courses in the U.S. during his career.
Rogan writes that, “most important will be efforts to strengthen the Hariri political bloc. There’s new urgency here following electoral reforms introduced earlier this summer in which Lebanon reduced the number of constituencies from 26 to 15, and introduced a proportional representation system. The hope is that these efforts will open sectarian parties to greater competition and that future governments will have to build broader coalitions.” He adds, “In turn, if Hariri’s Future Movement can consolidate its alliance with two Christian parties, Lebanese forces, and Kataeb, Hariri might then be able to influence the Druze-led progressive socialist party to join them. At that point, Hezbollah would find itself in a far less confident position to be able to dictate efforts and Michel Aoun might reconsider his party’s alliance with them.”
These efforts, according to Rogan, would not be intended to fight Hezbollah and its allies, but instead, the objective would be to counter Hezbollah and Iran with many domestic and foreign political opponents, and force them to reconsider their aggressive agenda.