Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, shocked many on Saturday as he resigned abruptly, saying that he was stepping down in protest at Iran’s interference in his country and feared he would be assassinated like his father 12 years ago.
Al-Hariri announced his resignation from Saudi Arabia and the move appeared to have been done in coordination with Riyadh, which sees Iran as an arch-rival to be countered across the Middle East.
In a televised address from Riyadh, al-Hariri said: “The evil that Iran spreads in the region will backfire on it. Despite my efforts, Iran continues to abuse Lebanon.”
He feared he was being targeted like his father, former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was killed by a massive car bomb in 2005.
“We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assassination of martyr Rafik al-Hariri. I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life,” he said.
Hariri who became prime minister in late 2016, headed a 30-member national unity cabinet that included the Shiite militant Hezbollah. The government has largely succeeded in protecting the country from the effects of the civil war in neighboring Syria.
The country is sharply divided along a camp loyal to Saudi Arabia, headed by the Sunni Muslim Hariri, and a camp loyal to Iran represented by Hezbollah.
President Michel Aoun, who was elected in October 2016 is a close ally of Hezbollah. His election was made possible after Hariri endorsed him for president, based on an understanding that Aoun would then appoint him as prime minister.
In a statement, the presidential office said Aoun was informed by Hariri in a phone call of his resignation, adding that the president now awaits Hariri’s return to the country to clarify the circumstances of his resignation and proceed accordingly.
Hariri’s surorsie resignation Saturday was expected to raise tensions in the country and ushers in a stage of deep uncertainty and potential instability. It comes amid a sharp escalation in Saudi rhetoric against its regional archrival Iran.
In his speech, he suggested he feared for his life and said the climate in the country is similar to the one that existed before his father, the late prime minister Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in 2005.
Several Hezbollah members are being tried in absentia for the killing by a U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. Hezbollah denies any involvement.
Hezbollah has sent thousands of its fighters to Syria to shore up President Bashar Assad’s government. The group’s intervention in Syria is highly controversial in Lebanon.
Hariri said Hezbollah’s policies have put Lebanon “in the eye of the storm.” His attacks on Hezbollah come on the heels of new U.S. sanctions on the group that many fear will impact negatively on the Lebanese economy.
“Hezbollah was able in past decades to impose a reality in Lebanon by force of arms directed at the chests of Syrians and Lebanese,” he said.
“I declare my resignation from the premiership of the Lebanese government, with the certainty that the will of the Lebanese is strong,” Hariri said.