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  • Einat Elazari

The next chess move; why Saudi – Iranian recent counter steps are at such a pivotal stage

[See the original publication on LinkedIn here]

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resignation earlier this month was a prominent move in a delicate chess game. The chess board is the Lebanese political system that is operating within a bigger board: the Middle East and the everlasting power-race in it. To better understand the context of this resignation it is essential to be familiar with the structure of the Lebanese political system. Taking into account the different ethnic-religious fractures in the country there is a fixed order to the ruling positions. The President must be Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister must be Sunni and the Speaker of Parliament must be Shiite. This supposedly fair system of checks and balances has a critical weak spot. In reality the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah possesses unprecedented power in the country. The movement holds a dominant presence in the Lebanese parliament and government and has its own military force – which is stronger than the Lebanese army and enjoy full Iranian support.

Saudi awakening

While the Lebanese domestic dynamics are not new, it seems that Saudi Arabia is increasingly pushing for influence in the Lebanese arena in order to better serve its own geopolitical interests. Why now? For two main reasons:

1.      The vacuum in Syria. As the conflict in Syria is about to end, Iran is gradually strengthening its grasp in Syria, Iraq and as a result also in Lebanon: the Iranian support in the fight against ISIS is already developing into cooperation with the ruling local powers and a stable presence of Iranian forces or proxies within these territories. The struggle over a larger regional influence as a result of the Syrian vacuum is at its peak. 

2.      New Saudi King and crown Prince. While new in his position, King Salman who ascended the throne in 2015 is not young. He is already preparing both the internal Saudi arena and the regional arena for the ruling of his son. Internally, going strong with an anti-corruption campaign he sets to move aside princes and other men of influence away from a possibility of threatening the rule of him and his son. Externally, he’s dealing with a multifaceted Iranian threat:

a.       Nuclear – nuclear Iran is a direct threat on Saudi Arabia no less than to Israel. While reports claim that the Iranians are complying with the nuclear deal, signing the deal signaled to the Saudis that they are pretty much on their own with the power race against Iran.

b.      Proxies – Hezbollah is getting stronger both in Lebanon and Syria as a result of winning over ISIS and Iranian support. Houthis in Yemen are getting bolder and bolder not only in their aggression in Yemen but also towards its neighbor; Saudi Arabia. In November 4th, just a few hours after Hariri resignation, Houthis forces shot missiles towards Riyadh airport. In Iraq, the Shiite militias who helped defeating ISIS are still there. In light of the recent meetings of Iraqi PM Abadi with Khamenei and president Rouhani, it seems the cooperation is going to continue, meaning a continuing Iranian strong imprint in the state.

The Saudis are seeing a growing Iranian threat in all these different arenas, knowing the essential relevance of time and timing.

Hariri’s resignation was probably a result of Saudi pressure. Clearly, since Hariri became PM Hezbollah power has not decreased or halted. It is not enough for the Saudis, who desire a stronger Lebanese opposition that will help them in countering the growth of Hezbollah and Iran, at least in Lebanon. This chess move by the Saudis is still too fresh to finally assess whether it was a smart one or not: Hariri’s resignation raised the anger of the Lebanese who claimed the Saudis were holding him hostage. Despite his public appearances meant to show independence and control, it seems as though big parts of the Lebanese society were certainly not happy with the Saudi intervention. On the other hand a potential new PM enjoying not only Saudi support but maybe also Egyptian and Israeli, is one that might be able to take bolder moves against Hezbollah, reducing its influence and as a result weakening Iranian influence in Lebanon.

The volume of confrontation

Although recent events provoked discussions regarding the possibility of an upcoming war between Saudi Arabia and Iran – that is unlikely to happen. Both countries have too much on stake at the moment and too many things to take care of. The key word is stability. The Iranians know that a relatively calm political environment will help them to move forward with new agreements with Russia and Iraq on a significant imprint in Syria and Iraq while the West is still pacified with a cooperating Iran on the nuclear issue. The Saudis are busy with reforming their country while keeping it stable. What we will see is a gradual surge of indirect confrontation: Iran with its proxies in the region and Saudi Arabia with strengthening the kingdom and their regional alliances (Egypt, Israel) alongside attempts to strengthen their mark in Lebanon by a new political order.

In a post-ISIS Middle East, Lebanon is a key state no less than the new order in Syria. Its internal dynamics and structure will influence the Middle East in the short as well as the long run. While the Iranians see the Syrian chaos as an opportunity to strengthen their traditional Shiite grasp in Lebanon, the Saudis identify a chance to strengthen Lebanon, turning it to be more independent than it was so far. Currently it seems as if the Iranians are on the upper hand: a chaotic Middle East and strong proxies like Hezbollah and Houthis is playing well into Tehran hands. Time will tell how the Saudi actions will manage to turn the game.

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