Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned, is seen during Future television interview, in a coffee shop in Beirut, Lebanon November 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi
Saad al-Hariri looked tense and tired during the interview on Future TV on Sunday © Reuters

Saad al-Hariri, Lebanon’s prime minister, said he was free and would return from Riyadh within days, but warned his resignation last week should serve as a “positive shock” to pull the country away from the regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Tired and stressed and at one point holding back tears, Mr Hariri gave his first interview on Sunday since his abrupt resignation via a broadcast from Saudi Arabia on November 4. The move sent shockwaves through the country and was interpreted in the region as a sign that Lebanon, long on the sidelines of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, risked becoming another flashpoint in that struggle.

The resignation of the longtime Saudi ally is widely believed in Lebanon and among diplomatic circles to have been forced by Riyadh angry that his government had given too much power to Hizbollah. The Lebanese Shia force is one of Iran’s most important regional partners — as a paramilitary and political organisation — and was a part of Mr Hariri’s government.

Along with Iran, Hizbollah’s influence has been growing, not only in Lebanon but across the region. It has been a significant force alongside President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, has sent trainers to join Iranian-backed forces in Iraq, and is now accused by Riyadh of helping the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels of Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.

Mr Hariri told his political party’s Future TV station: “I want to rescue [Lebanon]. I wanted a positive shock so we would know we are in a dangerous place.”

Lebanon, which has been subjected to a new round of anti-Hizbollah sanctions by Washington, could also face Arab sanctions, he warned. Such a move would be taken because of Saudi accusations that Iran and Hizbollah have intervened in Bahrain and Yemen, he said.

“We know there are American sanctions but should we add to them Arab sanctions as well? What is in our interest as Lebanese?” he said.

Mr Hariri’s main message appeared to be a call for Lebanon to clearly hold on to its policy of “disassociation” from regional conflict. Wary of being dragged into neighbouring Syria’s war, which runs along similar sectarian faultlines, Lebanese politicians agreed they would stay neutral. But Hizbollah critics argue that policy was never really followed because of the Shia group’s role in Syria and across the region.

“We cannot continue in this way, where we say we want a policy of disassociation at the same time that we see an actor in Lebanon is working in Yemen and other places,” Mr Hariri said.

“Disassociation is the foundation of Lebanon’s interest . . . Where do we export our goods? Is it not Arab states? Where do our sons work?” he asked, pointing out how much of the country relied on the Arab region, particularly the Gulf, where millions of Lebanese work. “We must work to preserve this interest, and this interest was threatened, and that is why I did what I did.”

The premier acknowledged that his resignation was “unusual” and said Michel Aoun, the Lebanese president, had a right to demand that he return to formalise his resignation. He planned to Lebanon “very soon”, even within days. “I am free in the kingdom and if I wanted to travel tomorrow, I could travel,” he said.

Mr Aoun has refused to accept the resignation from afar, saying it is unconstitutional. He has repeatedly said he believes Mr Hariri’s movements are restricted, and said the prime minister’s interview could not be seen as his own free opinion: “[They] are subject to doubt and suspicion, and cannot be relied upon or seen as an expression of the full will of the prime minister”.

In the interview Mr Hariri failed to clear up all the questions around his resignation and time in Riyadh. His comments stuck very closely to the Saudi line and the interviewer was unable to bring her own camera crew.

Regional diplomats say that, while they do not think he is under formal house arrest, he appears to be under heavy Saudi pressure that limits his movements.

Mr Hariri appeared to choke back tears when he said he was grateful for that many Lebanese, even from rival parties, had supported demands for his return, saying he hoped they would “use this consensus to put Lebanon first”.

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