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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Iran and Hizbollah have brought Lebanon to the brink of collapse. Saad Hariri is showing a way back to stability

There is a genuine clamour in Lebanon for change. Mr Hariri and all who oppose Iran's chokehold on Beirut should capitalise on it

Despite the threat to his life, Mr Hariri has pledged to return to Lebanon.    Future TV via AP
Despite the threat to his life, Mr Hariri has pledged to return to Lebanon. Future TV via AP

Ever since Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, announced his resignation, Iran has been dispensing a stream of conspiracy theories. Mr Hariri, according to these, is being held against his will in Riyadh. He is the casualty, say Tehran and its proxies, of a nefarious Saudi plot to destabilise Lebanon. It’s strange that none of the conspiracists has had a word to say about the reasons Mr Hariri himself cited as he quit: the credible threat of imminent assassination at the hands of Iran’s militant Lebanese client, Hizbollah.

Since his resignation, Mr Hariri has travelled to the UAE, where he held talks with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. In Riyadh, he has had multiple meetings with foreign ambassadors. Mr Hariri’s absence has had the effect of re-energising his base at home and has revealed, to his adversaries, the true extent of his support across Lebanon – a country that, for all its manifest divisions, seems broadly to be in solidarity with Mr Hariri. Hizbollah and Iran, clearly unsettled by this show of support, have redoubled their efforts to paint Mr Hariri as a Saudi marionette. After all, the rising stature and popularity of Mr Hariri, a man viscerally opposed to Iranian influence in his country, also indicate the Lebanese people’s aversion to Iran and Hizbollah.

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On Sunday, Mr Hariri decided to nip the rumours emanating from Hizbollah headquarters by speaking publicly for the first time since resigning from office. “I’m free in the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] and I can travel anytime I want,” Mr Hariri said in an interview with Lebanon’s Future TV, broadcast live from his residence in Riyadh. Dismissing the “work of fantasy” being spun by Iran, he calmly enumerated the costs of not challenging Iran’s clout in Lebanon and of “allowing Hizbollah to ruin Lebanon”. A wave of economic sanctions from the countries exposed to the actions of Hizbollah would cripple Lebanon, he warned. “Saudi Arabia loves Beirut but it won’t love it more than Riyadh. Will it continue to love Beirut when a Lebanese group tries to undermine the stability of the Gulf?”, he asked pointedly.

Mr Hariri’s analysis that his hurried departure has acted as a “positive shock” to Lebanon’s political system seems accurate. There is a genuine clamour in the country, which has often teetered on the brink of collapse, for a through political overhaul. And this is exactly what Mr Hariri says he intends to do. Despite the threat to his life, Mr Hariri has pledged to return to Lebanon to hammer out a solution. Hizbollah now stands thoroughly discredited, a fifth column that has transformed a proud and pluralistic country into a colony of Iran’s. “I will be back very soon”, Mr Hariri said on Sunday. If this heralds the beginning of the end of Iran’s chokehold on Beirut, the drama and unrest of the past few weeks will have been worth it.

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