Iran's Rouhani: Saudi meddling in Lebanon is 'unprecedented'
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani criticized Saudi Arabia on Wednesday over what he called "unprecedented" interference in Lebanese affairs and added his voice to those who suspect the Gulf kingdom forced Lebanon's prime minister to resign.
Rouhani's remarks followed a phone call to his Lebanese counterpart the previous day, in which the Iranian president pledged Tehran's support for Lebanon's stability following the resignation of the Saudi-backed Prime Minister Saad Hariri.
The surprise resignation, announced on TV from Saudi Arabia, threw the Lebanese government into disarray and exposed a new front for the tensions between the Sunni powerhouse and its archrival Shiite-led Iran. Lebanon's president, Michel Aoun, told Lebanese politicians that Hariri's resignation will not be accepted until he hears from him directly.
According to Rouhani's official website, the Iranian president said that "there is no case in history that a country forces another one's authority to resign only to interfere (in) their internal affairs."
"Why are you interfering with Lebanon's internal affairs and governance," Rouhani said, addressing Saudi Arabia. "This is an unprecedented event in history."
Hariri unexpectedly announced he was resigning on Saturday and accused Iran of meddling in Arab affairs and the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah of holding Lebanon hostage. Hezbollah has members in the Lebanese unity government that Hariri formed last year.
The resignation was followed by harsh Saudi official statements, including accusations against the Lebanese government of waging war on the kingdom. Iranian officials called the resignation a "plot" by the United States, Israel and the Saudis to foment tensions in Lebanon and the region.
Casting himself as the voice of reason, Rouhani also questioned the benefits of Saudi Arabia's "hostility toward the peoples of the region" and urged the kingdom to choose "friendship" instead.
"You are making mistake if you think Iran is not your friend and the U.S. and Israel are your friends," Rouhani also said, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency. "This is a strategic miscalculation."
Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been intensifying its confrontation with Shiite power Iran. The two camps support rival sides in countries across the region, as well as in the wars in Yemen and Syria.
In his call to Aoun late Tuesday, Rouhani said Iran firmly believes the Lebanese people will overcome "this sedition" and "will not allow Lebanon to become a battlefield for foreign powers and an opportunity for the terrorists to re-emerge."
According to Rouhani's website, Aoun told him that Lebanon is going through a "difficult" situation but that peace is still in place despite "some very weak voices that want to create tensions."
Washington has said it had no indication beforehand that Hariri would resign and pledged to continue U.S. support for the Lebanese government.
"Our relationship with the government will not change," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters on Tuesday. She added that Washington considers Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Washington has recently imposed new sanctions on the Shiite group, including a bounty on two of Hezbollah's senior military commanders.
"The United States strongly supports the legitimate institutions in the Lebanese state. We expect all members of the international community to respect those institutions and the sovereignty and the political independence of Lebanon," Nauert said
The bizarre circumstances surrounding Hariri's resignation left Lebanese politicians grappling to find a way out of a political deadlock.
An official in Aoun's office said Wednesday that Hariri is still considered the prime minister. Parliament speaker Nabih Berri said the government is still considered in business, given the manner in which Hariri resigned. Aoun has had no contact with Hariri since the prime minister left for Saudi Arabia last Friday.
In his speech, Hariri said he feared for his life, but security officials have said they had no indication there were threats against the prime minister.
In his absence, Lebanon has been awash with speculation the 47-year old prime minister may be held against his will in Saudi Arabia as Riyadh seeks to impose its rivalry with Tehran on Lebanon. Saudi officials denied Hariri was under house arrest. On Tuesday, Hariri traveled to the United Arab Emirates, another critic of Iran, in an apparent attempt to dispel claims of his detention.
On Wednesday, Hariri's office said he received a call from the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The European Union ambassadors issued a statement, reiterating their support for Lebanon and urging all sides to "pursue constructive dialogue to build on" the government's work of the past year and prepare for next year's parliamentary elections. The vote has been postponed several times since 2009.
Also Wednesday, Aoun met with World Bank officials who reiterated their support for the Lebanese government. Regional Director Saroj Kumar Jha said World Bank's support for Lebanon's infrastructure, health, education and development has exceeded $2 billion.
Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.