BEIRUT: A war of words erupted between caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Hezbollah Thursday after Hariri accused Iran of “flagrant interference” in the internal affairs of Lebanon and Arab Gulf states.
The verbal exchanges shattered Hezbollah’s silence on Hariri’s fierce campaign against the party’s arsenal. Since the collapse of his government in January, Hariri and his March 14 allies have launched scathing attacks on Hezbollah, accusing it of using its weapons to influence political life in Lebanon. They have demanded Hezbollah put its weapons under state control.
Addressing a Lebanese-Saudi economic forum in Beirut, Hariri vowed not to let Lebanon become an Iranian protectorate, saying Tehran’s policy in the region was no longer acceptable. Hariri’s speech drew a swift response from Hezbollah, which accused Hariri of serving the U.S. policy in the region.
Rejecting growing Iranian influence in Lebanon, Hariri said: “We in Lebanon do not accept to be an Iranian protectorate, just as we don’t accept for our brothers in Bahrain, Kuwait or any other country to be an Iranian protectorate. We are part of an integrated Arab society.”
Hariri said that while Saudi Arabia helped maintain stability in Lebanon, other regional powers and states, namely Israel and Iran, were spreading chaos and turmoil in the region.
“Saudi Arabia is the biggest and first investor in Lebanon’s stability. This investment is priceless. It is the basis for Lebanon’s progress and its economic growth,” Hariri said.
Saudi Arabia and Syria, which back rival factions, coordinated their efforts in the past to defuse political and sectarian tensions in Lebanon.
“On the other hand, there are regional states, powers and parties that invest in chaos by exporting various means of political, civil and security turmoil with the aim of undermining the unity of our Arab societies,” Hariri said.
“It is well known that Israel is the largest investor in regional chaos and in causing violence and unrest in different directions. It is also known that Lebanon has paid heavily for such policies, which resulted in devastating wars,” he added.
Hariri, whose Cabinet was brought down in January by the Hezbollah-led March 8 alliance in a dispute over the U.N.-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon, accused Iran of meddling in the internal affairs of Lebanon and Gulf states in an attempt to expand its influence in the region.
“At this stage, we are all witnessing the exploitation of sectarian instincts which want to make Lebanon or Bahrain or the Gulf an arena for spreading political and security influence. In this regard, frankness requires us to say things as they are: Lebanon and several Arab countries, in the Gulf and probably outside the Gulf, are suffering from a flagrant Iranian interference at the political, economic and security levels,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges facing the Arab societies, including Lebanon, is Iran’s mounting violations of the social fabric in the Arab region.”
Responding to Hariri’s speech, Hezbollah said in a statement: “Hariri’s provocative attitudes against the Islamic Republic of Iran honestly reflected the latest attitudes of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Riyadh about Iran’s role in the region.”
“Hariri’s stances … were in conformity with the objectives of the U.S. design to spread dissension and strife among the region’s states and peoples and deflect the struggle from its original direction with the Israeli enemy to serve the American design which has begun to fall apart since the defeat of the [Israeli] enemy’s army in July 2006,” the statement said.
It added that WikiLeaks documents detailing private meetings between Lebanese politicians and U.S. Embassy officials have revealed “the size of Hariri’s bets on [the 2006 Israeli] war in order to make Lebanon an American-Israeli protectorate.”
Gates sharply criticized Iran while in Saudi Arabia Wednesday. “We already have evidence that the Iranians are trying to exploit the situation in Bahrain and we also have evidence that they’re talking about what they can do to create problems elsewhere,” Gates said, referring to Shiite-led protests that were crushed by Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy.
Later Thursday night, Hariri’s Future Movement issued a statement hitting back at Hezbollah, saying the party’s statement has proved to all Lebanese that it is Iran’s official spokesperson in Lebanon. The statement said that while the party was not surprised by Hezbollah’s treason charges, it was strange that the party, which is hostile to America, based its charges on “leaked American documents.”
Hariri’s remarks came as tension was rising between Iran and Gulf states after Tehran objected to the Saudi dispatch of troops to Bahrain to quell the protests there and a spying row with Kuwait raised tension.
In a statement after their meeting in Riyadh last week, the foreign ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council condemned Iran’s “continuing interference” in GCC states’ affairs. The GCC comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain.
The GCC’s position came a few days after the Iranian Parliament’s national security committee had said in a statement that Saudi Arabia was “playing with fire” by sending troops to Bahrain to quell weeks of public protests by the majority Shiites demanding political reforms. The GCC ministers also condemned “the blatant Iranian interference in Kuwait through planting spy cells on its territory.” Iran has denied the allegations.
Hariri said Arab countries did not address the issue of the growing Iranian influence in a hostile manner because they considered Iran a brotherly and friendly state.
“But it seems, with great regret, that the Iranian leadership understood this responsible Arab attitude and the successive invitations for openness as signs of weakness and surrender, so it decided to go to the extreme in infiltrating the Arab societies one after the other, starting with Lebanon, Bahrain and other countries,” he said.
“We say with all sincerity and responsibility that this Iranian policy is not acceptable anymore and that the gradual abduction of Arab societies under any slogan will not be in the interest of Iran or Arab-Iranian relations,” Hariri added.