BEIRUT: The heated exchange between caretaker Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Hezbollah over Iran’s policies in Lebanon and the Gulf region is not likely to spin out of control or threaten the country’s stability, political analysts said Friday.
Hariri and Hezbollah engaged in virulent rhetoric shortly after Hariri accused Iran Thursday 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 achieve political goals in Lebanon. They demand that Hezbollah puts its weapons under state control.
Addressing a Lebanese-Saudi economic forum, Hariri vowed Thursday 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 and seeking to turn Lebanon into “an American-Israeli protectorate.”
“Raising the bar in political speech and raising tension between the parties do not necessarily translate into a full scale war. We might witness limited skirmishes in mixed areas, but these skirmishes can be contained by the army,” Carol Maalouf, a political analyst, told The Daily Star.
Maalouf, also a lecturer in political science and political history of Lebanon at Notre Dame University, said that neither the rival leaders of Hezbollah and Hariri’s Future Movement, nor their supporters, have the will to fight one another.
“I don’t think the silent majority have the will to go to armed struggle with any opposing party,” she said. “Despite the tension and fear from both sides, there are no indications of a full-scale war.”
Talal Atrissi, an expert on Iran and Middle East affairs, agreed with Maalouf, ruling out any street sectarian clashes between supporters of Hariri and Hezbollah.
“I don’t think the tension between Hariri and Hezbollah will erupt into street violence, especially [since] we are in a phase of Cabinet formation. Neither Hariri, nor Hezbollah, which is participating in the Cabinet, has an interest in street violence ahead of the Cabinet formation,” Atrissi told The Daily Star.
“Besides, there is no local, regional or international decision for a military flare-up in Lebanon because Lebanon is not a priority for America and Gulf states. Priority is now for Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt,” Atrissi said.
Atrissi, a lecturer at the Lebanese University, said Hariri’s tough stance on Iran was “a translation of the tension between Iran and the Gulf states.”
A political source close to the government explained the reasons behind Hariri’s tough stand against Iran, saying the leader of the Future Movement acted to defend the case of Lebanese expatriates working in the Gulf states after Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah’s verbal attacks on Bahrain’s rulers raised fears of their expulsion.
“There are 300,000 Lebanese expatriates working in the Gulf states. The tough stance against Iran was meant to send a message to Gulf leaders that the Lebanese party [Hezbollah] attacking Gulf leaders does not represent the viewpoint of all the Lebanese, that the majority of the Lebanese do not agree to this viewpoint and that they respect all Gulf states,” the source told The Daily Star. “With this stand, Hariri is helping not to make the Lebanese pay the price of non-official Lebanese political positions.”
The source said that Hariri’s tough stance was also in response to recent Iranian statements, the latest of which, by an Iranian parliamentary committee, declared that “Bahrain and Lebanon are part of Iran’s sphere of influence.”
“This prompted the caretaker government to respond to the Iranian statement,” the source said.
Despite the rising tension between the two sides following Hariri’s statement, Atrissi said he was confident that things would not spin out of control “because there is no decision from Hariri or Hezbollah to fight each other.”
“The atmosphere is not alarmingly tense. The political and sectarian tension is under control,” he added.
Maalouf said there are two prerequisites for a war of words to erupt into an armed struggle between the parties.
“Firstly, there should be the will by the local parties to fight each other, and secondly there should be a regional consent for that will. But I don’t think there is a will on either the local parties or regional powers,” she said.
“So far, I don’t believe there is a regional decision to settle scores on the Lebanese arena in the near future. But in the long term, it cannot be ruled out completely,” Maalouf said.
She pointed out that the March 8 and 14 parties have been left without their regional allies.
“The March 14 coalition has lost their Egyptian ally [ousted President Hosni Mubarak]. Also, the Americans are preoccupied trying to settle other explosive regional conflicts in Libya and Yemen,” Maalouf said. As for the March 8 groups, “Syria is busy with its own uprising,” she added.
Maalouf said the only condition that might ignite “a Sunni-Shiite conflict is the possibility of the Saudi-Iranian war of words translated in the Lebanese arena as we have seen in previous regional conflicts.”
Atrissi ruled out a more serious escalation of tension between Iran and Gulf states. “The Gulf states have no interest or ability to escalate the situation with Iran,” he said.
Hariri’s remarks came as tension was rising between Iran and Gulf states after Tehran objected to the dispatch of Saudi troops to Bahrain to quell Shiite-led protests and an Iranian spying row with Kuwait.
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.