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The ghost of Iran is behind the Saudi move on Lebanon

Rami Khouri is senior public policy fellow and professor of journalism at the American University of Beirut and a non-resident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Lebanon is passing through a potential crisis like none it has ever experienced before. Traditionally, it has been a pliant arena for the proxy wars of global and regional powers. Suddenly – in the eyes of Saudi Arabia's mercurial young leader, at least – Lebanon and Hezbollah have become a dangerous principal actor in the region that threatens Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab regimes who want to cut it down to size quickly and decisively.

The fast-paced events of the past week are, however, less about Lebanon and more about Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The contrast between them is telling. Lebanon, as both a playground and battleground for other powers, has long weathered serious crises such as civil war, terrorism campaigns, sectarian strife, foreign occupations and sustained government paralysis.

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Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, is experiencing an unprecedented and very sudden domestic and regional political transformation. The dynamism and brutality of Prince Mohammed's policy have included war-mongering campaigns against Yemen and Qatar, the arrest of several hundred leading Saudis (including members of the royal family), and totally upending the foundations of domestic social, political and economic life. The outcome of this could either cement the country's role as a long-term Middle Eastern power player or see it join other Arab countries that are mired in economic stress, sectarian strife, struggling leaderships and regional ideological battles.

The trigger for the new Lebanon dynamic was the sudden announcement last week – on Saudi television and in Saudi Arabia – by the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri that he was resigning, mainly because he saw Hezbollah and Iran as threats to the country that made his job impossible.

This was widely seen as a purely Saudi decision that was forced on him, evidence that he is being held captive. Riyadh now targets Lebanon because of the disproportionately large role in governance played by Hezbollah, which is a close strategic ally of Iran. The ghost that haunts conservative Arab autocracies is their perception of Iran's hegemonic ambitions in the region.

The Saudi government also said the Lebanese government would "be dealt with as a government declaring war on Saudi Arabia," because of what a Saudi cabinet minister described as aggression by Hezbollah and the Lebanese government's inaction against Hezbollah during its past year in office.

Saudi Arabia and three other Gulf Cooperation Council Arab states have told their nationals to leave Lebanon. This heightened concerns among the Lebanese of an imminent crisis engineered by the Saudi government to destabilize Lebanon and weaken Hezbollah and Iran.

Modern history suggests three options to this end: assassination and locally violent campaigns to foment internal civil war; military attacks by Israel or others; or economic strangulation and collapse. Economic collapse today is Lebanon's greatest vulnerability, given its economy's heavy reliance on remittances, investments, tourists and contracts from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that are now squeezing it. Lebanon's tragedy is that it has long been susceptible to and has experienced these traumas, but its strength is that it has endured all of them several times and survived, as it surely will again. Yet several significant new factors are at play in this round of tensions in Lebanon and the region.

The most significant by far is the convergence of policy aims among the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel. All three want to "roll back" Iran's reach in the region, weaken Hezbollah and other Islamist groups, fight terrorism, assure the security and regional military dominance of Israel, and generate hundreds of billions of dollars of lucrative commercial deals and investments to boot.

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Also relevant in today's picture is that Lebanon does not enjoy a single foreign patron power that looks after it and rescues it in times of distress, as had been the case in the past century when France, the U.S., Saudi Arabia or Syria played that role. Most troubling for the regional stability-or-chaos picture is the flagrant inexperience and lack of nuance among the new U.S. and Saudi leaders. President Donald Trump and Prince Mohammed both use bravado, threats and military force to show their resolve and assert their political manhood.

The sudden Saudi turn against Lebanon may be explained by a frantic need for Prince Mohammed to chalk up a win – any win – to compensate for the embarrassing failures of all his foreign-policy initiatives to date: the ongoing Yemen war; the failed siege of Qatar; the unsuccessful overthrow of the Syrian regime; the inability to temper Hezbollah and Hamas's durability; and the hapless attempts to weaken Iran's regional footprint. In fact, Saudi-American-Israeli failures in these spheres have only strengthened Iran and Hezbollah, while also creating significant new openings for Russia and Turkey to improve their strategic ties within the Arab region. We may see this happening again in Lebanon in the coming months.

A fascinating but confusing new twist in this drama was a statement issued Friday by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that may represent the first example of Washington asking Saudi Arabia to restrain its regional rampage and not plunge Lebanon into full chaos. The statement's mixed messages included support for the Lebanese government and Mr. Hariri, whom it called "a strong partner of the United States," but firmly opposed groups like Hezbollah, whose military power remains outside the control of the state. It also seemed to ask Saudi Arabia to slow down its assault on Lebanon in stating, "The United States cautions against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country."

​Prince Mohammed is quickly consolidating power at home by arresting or intimidating all possible challengers. He is remaking Saudi Arabia in the image of other Arab autocracies (Egypt, Syria, Iraq under the Baathists, Libya under Gadhafi) that put total political, economic, military and media power in the hands of a single man. This augurs badly for the immediate future of the region, because family-based security states have been a catastrophe for the Arab people, and they largely explain the chaos and violence that plague it today. We will soon see if Saudi Arabia joins this legacy, and whether or not Lebanon will be another example of its destructive​​ handiwork. We will soon find out if it respects Friday's yellow light of caution from Washington.

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