The genesis of a new Iranian nationalism

Narges Bajoghli writes: It was a cold winter day in February 2011. Nineteen months had passed since the emergence of the Green Movement amid the disputed 2009 presidential election, and the leaders of the Islamic Republic’s media centers had gathered for a meeting. One prominent producer in the room, a captain in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), bluntly said to his colleagues, “The youngest generation in our country doesn’t understand our religious language anymore. We’re wasting our time with the things we make. They don’t care about it. That’s why so many of them were in the streets protesting against our system.”

The Green Movement, the largest mass demonstrations in Iran since the 1979 Revolution, shook the political and military elite in the Islamic Republic to its core. Over my decade of fieldwork in Iran with the regime’s cultural producers (2005-2015), commanders in the IRGC continuously debated how they would close the fissures the Green Movement exposed among Iranians — and between the state and society. Gradually, they chose nationalism as a unifying force to define the Islamic Republic and to rebrand the Guards following their suppression of the Green Movement.

In that meeting, the IRGC’s media producers began to discuss how they had been observing an increasing trend in displays of nationalism in the general population. From the apparent spike in pre-Islamic Persian names for babies, to the large flags along highways and bridges that became a mainstay of the 2005-13 presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the ever-present farvahar — a symbol of Zoroastrianism, which predates Islam — the IRGC sensed an opportunity. Although nationalistic sentiments were evident in cultural production in the Islamic Republic in the 1980s and 1990s, what is now evident is an effort in many sectors of the regime to promote “Iranian-ness” above and beyond mere “Islamic-ness.” [Continue reading…]

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Following the developing Iranian cyberthreat

File 20171121 6013 1qqleza.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Iranian Cyber Army has taken over many websites.
Zone-H, CC BY-NC-ND

By Dorothy Denning, Naval Postgraduate School

Iran is one of the leading cyberspace adversaries of the United States. It emerged as a cyberthreat a few years later than Russia and China and has so far demonstrated less skill. Nevertheless, it has conducted several highly damaging cyberattacks and become a major threat that will only get worse.

Like Russia and China, the history of Iran’s cyberspace operations begins with its hackers. But unlike these other countries, Iran openly encourages its hackers to launch cyberattacks against its enemies. The government not only recruits hackers into its cyberforces but supports their independent operations.

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Putin makes first visit to Syria, lauds victory over ISIS and announces withdrawals

The Washington Post reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday made a surprise visit to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria, announcing an imminent drawdown of Russian forces in the wake of his declaration of victory in its intervention in the Syria war.

In his first visit to the air base since Russian warplanes secretly flew to Syria in late 2015, Putin ordered his defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, to begin the “withdrawal of Russian troop contingents” to their permanent bases.

But Putin left open the door to a continued Russian presence in Syria, saying that both Russia’s air base at Khmeimim and naval base at Tartus would keep operating. He promised further strikes in the future “if terrorists raise their head again” — an apparent reference to forces in Syria’s long civil war that sought to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

“We will deliver such strikes on them that they have not seen yet,” he said in remarks to military personnel at the air base.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria bolstered Assad’s government and gave Syrian forces a critical edge against rebel factions backed by the West and its Middle East allies. Iran, another key supporter of Assad, provided military advisers and other aid.

Putin, who declared last week that he would run for a fourth term as president, has largely staked his legacy on Russia’s revival as the dominant military power in its region. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration pushes back against narrative of imminent Syrian military victory in civil war

The Washington Post reports: The government of Bashar al-Assad, lacking manpower, reliant on allies and almost broke, is no longer capable of a military win in Syria’s civil war, U.S. officials said Monday, pushing back against Russian and Syrian assertions that victory is only a matter of time.

Senior officials described a severely weakened Syrian state, grappling with challenges including loss of oil revenue; severe infrastructure damage; increasing reliance on outside powers for cash, food and fighters; and a military barely able to keep multiple armed groups at bay.

“When we look at what it would take to make a victor’s peace sustainable in any country, the Syrian regime does not have it,” one official said during a briefing for reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Trump administration. “They’re not wealthy, they’re not rich in manpower, they’re not rich in other capabilities, and the grievances, if anything, are sharper now than they were at the beginning of this conflict.”

Describing the Trump administration’s assessment of the Syrian war, officials cited a recent battle to recapture Bukamal, along the Syria-Iraq border, that included almost no Syrian government units.

The Trump administration believes that about 80 percent of the military manpower fighting in support of the Syrian government is made up of foreign forces from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. [Continue reading…]

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Long divided, Iran unites against Trump and Saudis

The New York Times reports: The busiest square in Tehran is dominated by an enormous billboard with a drawing of a young man in the uniform of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, extending his hand to invite Iranians to follow his path. Underneath the image, teenagers line up, flashing victory signs, as they take selfies with the placard in the background.

In life, the man on the billboard, 26-year-old Mohsen Hojaji, was just as anonymous as the thousands of other Iranians who have rotated in and out of war zones in Iraq and Syria in recent years. But after having been taken prisoner, videotaped and later beheaded by the Islamic State in August, Mr. Hojaji has been transformed by Iran’s government into a war hero, the face of a new surge in Iranian nationalism.

After years of cynicism, sneering or simply tuning out all things political, Iran’s urban middle classes have been swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor.

The changing attitude, while some years in the making, can be attributed to two related factors: the election of President Trump and the growing competition with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sectarian rival, for regional dominance.

Iranians listened during the 2016 campaign as Mr. Trump denounced the Iran nuclear treaty as “the worst deal ever negotiated” and promised to tear it up. They watched in horror when, as president, he sold more than $100 billion worth of weapons to the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and participated in a traditional war dance in Riyadh. And they are alarmed at the foreign policy moves of the young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, whom they see as hotheaded and inexperienced. [Continue reading…]

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Hezbollah, on the rise in Lebanon, fends off Saudi Arabia

The Washington Post reports: Even as Arab countries step up pressure on Hezbollah for its ties to Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militant group has cemented its status as a regional power, projecting military strength beyond Lebanon’s borders and weathering political crises at home.

The group’s rise comes as Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for hegemony in the region, intensifying conflicts from Syria to Yemen. Saudi Arabia sees Hezbollah as Iran’s most potent proxy, and in recent weeks has spearheaded an effort to isolate the movement.

But Hezbollah’s dominant position was made apparent this month in the ongoing saga of Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri.

According to U.S. and Lebanese officials, Saudi Arabia forced Hariri’s resignation, shattering Lebanon’s coalition government, which included Hezbollah ministers. Saudi Arabia hoped the move would undermine Iran by paving the way for more aggressive action against the Shiite militants, the officials say.

Instead, it rallied Lebanon in support of its prime minister and cast Hezbollah as the stabilizing force. On Wednesday, Hariri announced he was suspending his resignation as he held talks with Lebanese President Michel Aoun.

Now Hezbollah is set to potentially benefit from the turmoil, using its political and military prowess — and vast social networks in Lebanon — to entrench itself further. From its strongholds in southern Lebanon, where it made its name fighting Israeli troops, to the battlefields of Syria, Hezbollah is ascendant, with few able to challenge it. [Continue reading…]

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Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri puts his resignation on hold

The Washington Post reports: Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri suspended his shock resignation delivered weeks earlier from Saudi Arabia, marking a stunning return to Beirut on Wednesday after weeks of speculation over his freedom of movement.

Hariri’s Nov. 4 announcement from Riyadh blindsided political allies and foes alike, and stoked regional tensions amid suggestions that he had been coerced by his main regional patron.

But standing in the marble hallway of Beirut’s presidential palace Wednesday, Hariri said that he had agreed to delay his resignation to hold a “dialogue” that would lead Lebanon out of crisis.

The announcement appeared to roll back a bold push by Saudi Arabia in recent weeks aimed at countering Iranian influence across the region. [Continue reading…]

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Israeli military chief wants closer Saudi ties as Iran tensions rise

The Guardian reports: Israel’s military chief has given an “unprecedented” interview to a Saudi newspaper underlining the ways in which the two countries could unite to counter Iran’s influence in the region.

Speaking to the Saudi newspaper Elaph, Gen Gadi Eisenkot described Iran as the “biggest threat to the region” and said Israel would be prepared to share intelligence with “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia in order to “deal with” Tehran.

The interview, however, is particularly striking in its very public and confrontational messaging: an appeal by Israel to Riyadh for a joint action on Tehran, delivered by Israel’s most senior soldier.

It is the latest dramatic twist in weeks of turmoil in the region, which followed an unexpected purge of Saudi princes and officials by crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, who has also increasingly locked Saudi Arabia on a path to confrontation with Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Saudi Arabia has no idea how to deal with Iran

Emile Hokayem writes: Few things are as explosive as the combination of power, ambition and anxiety — and there is plenty of all three in Riyadh these days.

Once a cautious and passive regional power, Saudi Arabia has found a new purpose in recent years. The ruthless ambition of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in full display at home with his crackdown on businessmen and members of the royal family, also radiates across the Middle East, driven by the urgency to check Iranian influence. Prince Mohammed has a point. Iran is set on becoming the dominant power from Iraq to Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia may exaggerate Iranian intentions and power, but Western and Asian countries typically understate them. The Iranians themselves are clear about how they view the region: “No decisive actions can be taken in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, North Africa and the Gulf region without Iran’s consent,” Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, reportedly boasted last month. Tehran may not be in full control in Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut, but thanks to its proxies and allies, it can decisively shape their battlefields and politics.

Given these circumstances, Prince Mohammed has good reason to question the value of his predecessors’ risk aversion on foreign policy. Under previous kings, Riyadh was indeed keen to reach out to Tehran despite provocative Iranian actions, including fast-tracking its nuclear program just as King Abdullah courted Presidents Akbar Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami, and plotting to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in the United States.

Now Saudi foreign and security policy has gone into overdrive. Rather than carefully pushing back Iran and enrolling broad support for this effort, the approach has been haphazard, unsettling and counterproductive — and Iran remains one step ahead. [Continue reading…]

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The deal Trump wants to scrap because he thinks it should remain in force longer

Jeffrey Lewis writes: There is an old joke about two elderly women at a Catskills resort. One says: “Boy, the food in this place is really terrible.” And the other one says: “Yeah, I know. And such small portions.”

That’s the same complaint raised by opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. Donald Trump called it, “one of the most incompetently drawn deals I’ve ever seen.” And Rex Tillerson explained that, “in particular, the agreement has this very concerning shortcoming that the President has mentioned as well, and that is the sunset clause.”

Such a terrible deal. Yeah, and it ends so early!

Far from being incompetently drafted, the JCPOA imposed a number of important limits on Iran’s nuclear energy program to create a wider gap between Iran’s nuclear energy programs and a bomb. Second, the JCPOA greatly strengthened Iran’s safeguards arrangements to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, to verify that gap. And it does not have a single sunset.

Prior to the JCPOA, Iran had built a large and capable uranium infrastructure that would have allowed Iran to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon in a matter of weeks if Iran chose to do so. Iran had nearly 20,000 centrifuges, including nearly 3,000 located in its deep underground facility near Qom. [Continue reading…]

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Bahrain pipeline explosion seen as a warning from Iran

Simon Henderson writes: Saudi crude oil is reported to be flowing again through the Bahrain pipeline damaged by an explosion late on November 10. No one was injured in the blast, which sent a plume of flames high into the sky, damaging cars and nearby buildings. As yet, there has been no claim of responsibility, although the Bahraini government has described the incident as an “intentional act of sabotage,” blaming terrorists acting under instruction from Iran. For its part, Iran has denied any involvement.

Although oil was discovered in Bahrain before it was ever found in Saudi Arabia, the island’s actual reserves are very small. The pipeline affected, meanwhile, runs from the Saudi offshore Abu Safa oil field via a circuitous route across the Saudi mainland. Revenues from the field’s production are an important subsidy to Bahrain’s budget. The crude is refined at Bahrain’s refinery at Sitra, on the east coast of the island.

One oil industry publication suggested, “It is more likely than not that Iran chose [the attack] as a plausibly deniable response to Saudi Arabia’s perceived recent escalation against Iranian influence in Lebanon.”

The explosion occurred at Buri, a Shia town where the pipeline runs exposed on the surface rather than being underground. Buri, along with other Shia towns and villages, is off-limits to U.S. diplomatic and naval personnel based on the island, according to a map on the website of the U.S. embassy in the capital, Manama. [Continue reading…]

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UN agency report shows Iran meeting nuclear commitments

The Associated Press reports: The United Nations agency monitoring Iran’s compliance with a landmark nuclear treaty issued a report Monday certifying that the country is keeping its end of the deal that U.S. President Donald Trump claims Tehran has violated repeatedly.

The International Atomic Energy Agency report stopped short of declaring that Iran is honoring its obligations, in keeping with its official role as an impartial monitor of the restrictions the treaty placed on Tehran’s nuclear programs.

But in reporting no violations, the quarterly review’s takeaway was that Iran was honoring its commitments to crimp uranium enrichment and other activities that can serve both civilian and military nuclear programs.

The report cited IAEA chief Yukiya Amano as stressing “the importance of the full implementation by Iran of its nuclear-related commitments” under the deal. Diplomats familiar with the work that went into the evaluation said Amano’s statement referred to a past violation on heavy water limits that Iran has since corrected.

Heavy water cools reactors that can produce plutonium used to make the core of nuclear warheads. The IAEA last year said that Tehran had slightly exceeded the limit, but later said it had returned to compliance. Monday’s report showed its heavy water supply remains under the maximum 130 metric tons (143.3 tons) allowed under the deal. [Continue reading…]

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The upstart Saudi prince who’s throwing caution to the winds

The New York Times reports: With the tacit backing of his father, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince has established himself as the most powerful figure in the Arab world, rushing into confrontations on all sides at once.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the arrest of 11 princes in his royal family and nearly 200 members of the Saudi business elite, and has begun to take power from the kingdom’s conservative clerics. He has blockaded neighboring Qatar, accused Iran of acts of war and encouraged the resignation of Lebanon’s prime minister. And in Yemen, his armed forces are fighting an Iranian-aligned faction in an intractable war that created a humanitarian crisis.

The crown prince has moved so quickly that American officials and others worry that he is destabilizing the region. Signs of potential blowback are growing.

Investors, nervous about his plans, have been moving money out of the kingdom. Prince Mohammed has sought to counter the capital flight by squeezing detainees and others to surrender assets. He has presented the arrests as a campaign against corruption, but his targets call it a shakedown, and he has turned for advice to a former Egyptian security chief who has been pilloried at home for brutality and graft.

Prince Mohammed’s supporters say he is simply taking the drastic measures needed to turn around the kingdom’s graft-ridden and oil-dependent economy while pushing back against Iranian aggression.

But analysts around the region debate whether the headlong rush might be driven more by a desire to consolidate power before a possible royal succession, desperation for cash to pay for his plans or simply unchecked ambition to put his stamp on the broader Middle East. And despite President Trump’s enthusiasm for the prince, some in the State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies say they fear that his impulsiveness could both set back his own goals and destabilize the region.

“He’s decided he doesn’t do anything cautiously,” said Philip Gordon, the White House Middle East coordinator under President Barack Obama. But, Mr. Gordon said, “if the crown prince alienates too many other princes and other pillars of the regime, pursues costly regional conflicts and scares off foreign investors, he could undermine the prospects for the very reforms he is trying to implement.”

The extrajudicial arrests have spooked investors enough, analysts say, to extinguish the prince’s plans for an public stock offering of Aramco, the Saudi state oil company, in New York or London next year. It had been a centerpiece of his overhaul. [Continue reading…]

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The prime minister of Lebanon’s unnerving interview

Thanassis Cambanis writes: In the Middle East, the parlor game of the moment is guessing whether Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister—or is it ex-prime minister?—is literally, or only figuratively, a prisoner of his Saudi patrons. In a stiff interview from an undisclosed location in Riyadh on Sunday, Hariri did little to allay concerns that he’s being held hostage by a foreign power that is now writing his speeches and seeking to use him to ignite a regional war. He insisted he was “free,” and would soon return to Lebanon. He said he wanted calm to prevail in any dispute with Hezbollah, the most influential party serving in his country’s government.

Since Hariri was summoned to Saudi Arabia last week and more or less disappeared from public life as a free head of state, rumors have swirled about his fate. On November 4, he delivered a stilted, forced-sounding resignation speech from Riyadh. Michael Aoun, Lebanon’s president, refused to accept the resignation, and Hezbollah—the target of the vituperative rhetoric in Hariri’s speech—deftly chose to stand above the fray, absolving Hariri of words that Hezbollah (and many others) believe were written by Hariri’s Saudi captors.

The bizarre quality of all this aside, the underlying matter is deadly serious. Saudi Arabia has embarked on another exponential escalation, one that may well sacrifice Lebanon as part of its reckless bid to confront Iran.

Foreign influence seeps through Middle Eastern politics, nowhere more endemically than Lebanon. Spies, militias, and heads of state, issue political directives and oversee military battles. Foreign powers have played malignant, pivotal roles in every conflict zone, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen and Libya. Lebanon, sadly, could come next. Even by the low standards of recent history, the saga of this past week beggars the imagination, unfolding with the imperial flair of colonial times—but with all the short-sighted recklessness that has characterized the missteps of the region’s declining powers. [Continue reading…]

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The Middle East is nearing an explosion

Robert Malley writes: Lebanon has long been a mirror for the broader Middle East. The region’s more powerful actors use it, variously, as a venue for their proxy wars, an arena in which to play out the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a testing ground for periodic bouts of Saudi-Iranian coexistence. It’s where the region wages its wars and brokers its temporary truces. This past week, like in so many others, the Middle East has not been kind to Lebanon.

The news came on November 4 in the form of three back-to-back developments in a mere 10 hours. First, Saad Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, announced his resignation. That he made the statement from Riyadh told much of the story; that he delivered it with the genuineness of one forced to read his own prison sentence told the rest. The decision was announced by the Lebanese prime minister but it was made in Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, had reason to want it to happen. Saudi-Iranian tensions are rising and bin Salman is determined to depict Tehran as the source of all regional evils. For Hariri to preside over a government that includes Hezbollah fundamentally undercut that core message: It meant allowing one of Riyadh’s closest allies to cooperate with Tehran’s most loyal partner. Hariri as prime minister created the impression that coexistence with Hezbollah and by extension with Iran was possible; his departure is designed to erase any doubt. He was asked to assume the prime ministership a year ago, at a time when the goal was to inoculate Lebanon from Saudi-Iranian rivalry; with him gone, Lebanon now is fully exposed to it. It has joined the camp of Saudi Arabia’s enemies.

Act two was news that Saudi Arabia had intercepted a missile launched from Yemen and purportedly aimed at Riyadh’s airport. This was not the first missile that the Houthis, a Yemeni rebel group enjoying Iranian and Hezbollah support, had fired at its northern neighbor, but its timing and unprecedented range could make it one of the more consequential. The extent of outside backing to the Houthis is a matter of some debate, though neither U.S. nor Saudi officials harbor any doubt that the dramatic progress in the rebel movement’s ballistic missile program could not have occurred without its two benefactors’ considerable training and help. Like Hariri in his act of self-immolation, Saudi officials quickly and publicly drew a direct line connecting the strike to Iran and Hezbollah; it was, they proclaimed, an act of war for which they held both responsible and to which they would respond. [Continue reading…]

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Saudis appear to have kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister Hariri

David Ignatius writes: Former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri is being held by Saudi authorities under what Lebanese sources say amounts to house arrest in Riyadh, apparently as part of the Saudi campaign to squeeze Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.

A startling account of Hariri’s forced detention was provided Friday by knowledgeable sources in Beirut. It offers important new evidence of the tactics used by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to bolster his rule by mobilizing anti-Iran sentiment at home and abroad.

Rumors of the virtual kidnapping of Hariri, who resigned as prime minister last Saturday while in Saudi Arabia, have rocked the Arab world; Lebanese officials worry that MBS, as the 32-year-old crown prince is known, wants to force Lebanon into his confrontation with Iran. Some Lebanese analysts complain that the Saudis treat the Hariri family, who have been bankrolled by Riyadh for decades, almost as a wholly owned subsidiary. [Continue reading…]

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Will Israel go to war with Hezbollah and fight a Saudi war to the last Israeli?

The New York Times reports: There are no signs of war preparations in Israel. The country is not mobilizing troops on its northern border or calling up reservists, and Mr. Netanyahu has given no indication that he sees a conflict as imminent.

Moreover, Israel’s war planners predict that the next war with Hezbollah may be catastrophic, particularly if it lasts more than a few days. Hezbollah now has more than 120,000 rockets and missiles, Israel estimates, enough to overwhelm Israeli missile defenses.

Many of them are long-range and accurate enough to bring down Tel Aviv high-rises, sink offshore gas platforms, knock out Ben-Gurion Airport or level landmark buildings across Israel.

Nor is Hezbollah necessarily hankering for battle with Israel, according to analysts who study the militant group closely. It is still fighting in Syria, where it has been backing the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and it is being drained by medical costs for wounded fighters and survivor benefits for the families of those killed, said Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli major general and former head of the country’s National Security Council.

“Hezbollah as an organization is in a very deep economic crisis today,” Mr. Eiland said. “But at the same time, the weaker they are, the more dependent they are on Iranian assistance — so they might have to comply with Iran’s instructions.”

But there have long been fears that now that the Syrian war — in which Hezbollah played a decisive role, gaining new influence, power and weapons — is almost over, Hezbollah’s enemies might seek to cut it down to size.

Mr. Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, implied Friday that its fight in Syria was nearly finished. If Saudi Arabia’s goal was to force Hezbollah to leave Syria, he said: “No problem. Our goal there has been achieved. It’s almost over anyway.” [Continue reading…]

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Lebanon believes Saudi holds Hariri, demands his return

Reuters reports: Lebanon believes Saad al-Hariri is being held in Saudi Arabia, from where he resigned as Lebanese prime minister, two top government officials in Beirut said, amid a deepening crisis pushing Lebanon onto the frontlines of a power struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A third source, a senior politician close to Saudi-allied Hariri, said Saudi Arabia had ordered him to resign and put him under house arrest. A fourth source familiar with the situation said Saudi Arabia was controlling and limiting his movement.

In a televised statement indicating deep concern at Hariri’s situation, his Future Movement political party said his return home was necessary to uphold the Lebanese system, describing him as prime minister and a national leader.

Hariri’s resignation last Saturday, read out on television from Saudi Arabia, came as a shock even to his aides and further embroiled Beirut in a regional contest between Riyadh and Tehran.

Hariri’s exit fuelled wide speculation that the Sunni Muslim politician, long an ally of Riyadh, was coerced into stepping down by Saudi Arabia as it seeks to hit back against Iran and its Lebanese Shi‘ite ally, Hezbollah. [Continue reading…]

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