Lebanon was stunned on Nov. 4 when its prime minister, Saad Hariri, speaking from Saudi Arabia, delivered a halting resignation speech. Mr. Hariri said he left Beirut because he feared assassination. He placed the blamed for his long-distance resignation on Iran and its main ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
In the days since, Saudi Arabia has accused Hezbollah of plotting against the kingdom and ordered Saudi citizens to leave Lebanon. Threats from top Saudi officials are causing new turmoil in a tiny country with complicated sectarian politics, failed power-sharing arrangements and a long history of foreign meddling.
Since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Lebanon has largely avoided the conflicts sweeping the Middle East. Even the war that is raging in Syria, Lebanon’s much larger neighbor, has generally left the country unscathed. That calm is now threatened as the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies set their sights on Hezbollah and its patron, Iran.
Why would Saudi leaders risk a new conflagration? They see a way to make common cause with Washington by targeting Hezbollah, one of Iran’s most effective allies. President Trump has consistently singled out Iran’s support for Hezbollah and other groups that Washington considers terrorist organizations.
But Saudi Arabia is already overstretched. Its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen drags on, and the diplomatic dispute with Qatar remains in a stalemate, too. If Saudi leaders think they can score an easy victory in Lebanon against Hezbollah, it will be another misjudgment that adds to a dangerous and combustible moment in the Middle East.
Hezbollah was part of Lebanon’s national unity government formed in late 2016 with Mr. Hariri as the prime minister. Iran and Saudi Arabia — which views itself as the protector of Lebanon’s Sunni community — blessed the power-sharing agreement.
Hezbollah agreed to the deal because it wanted to avoid conflict in Lebanon and to direct its energy toward the Syrian war, where it fights alongside the government of President Bashar al-Assad. As a leader with strong ties to both the Sunni Arab states and the West, Mr. Hariri provided Hezbollah with political cover as it continued to dominate Lebanon.
The militia’s important role in the fighting in Syria has made it more powerful than ever. But Mr. Hariri’s resignation exposes Hezbollah and its allies in the Lebanese government to harsher United States sanctions, a potential war with Israel or even an economic blockade led by Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies, similar to the one imposed on Qatar.
Hezbollah, which was founded in the 1980s during a civil war and an Israeli invasion, is now the country’s dominant political and military force. It is unrealistic of Saudi leaders and the Trump administration to expect that it can be supplanted by a popular Lebanese groundswell against it or removed by a foreign military force without causing catastrophic damage to Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia’s new ruler, King Salman, and his son and designated heir, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, are pursuing a far more aggressive foreign policy than previous Saudi rulers. They have been bolstered in this by Mr. Trump’s support for the kingdom in its conflict with Iran. Now that Iran’s ally, Mr. Assad, has essentially won the civil war in Syria, Saudi Arabia is looking to contain Iranian influence elsewhere. Lebanon is a tempting target.
The Saudis have also been emboldened by their recent outreach to Shiite factions in Iraq, especially the nationalist cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who visited the kingdom in July and met with Prince Mohammed. The Saudis are hoping to cultivate Mr. Sadr and other Shiite leaders who can be a counterweight to Iranian influence in Iraq, especially ahead of parliamentary elections next year.
But the Saudis won’t be able to find a Sadr in Lebanon, a political figure who can offer a serious alternative to Hezbollah and Iranian influence in the Shiite community.
Since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, Hezbollah has entrenched itself in the largely Shiite areas of southern Beirut and southern Lebanon. With Iranian support, it opened schools and hospitals, provided business loans and fielded candidates for parliamentary elections. It also extended its military capability, deploying thousands of missiles along the border with Israel.
In February 2005, Rafik Hariri, a billionaire construction tycoon and Lebanon’s former prime minister, was assassinated in a bombing in Beirut. His death deprived Lebanon of its most prominent Sunni leader — and Saudi Arabia lost its most important Lebanese ally. After Mr. Hariri’s death, his son Saad took over his father’s Saudi-based construction empire and the Sunni political mantle in Lebanon.
In the summer of 2006, Hezbollah fought a monthlong war with Israel, which ended in a draw and increased the militia’s popularity across the Muslim world. But by early 2011, Hezbollah’s standing began to wane after a United Nations tribunal indicted several of its members for Mr. Hariri’s assassination.
If Mr. Hariri’s killing was a first salvo of the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon, subsequent battles also did not go Riyadh’s way.
In May 2008, Hezbollah broke a post-civil-war vow not to turn its weapons against other Lebanese factions. At the time, Lebanon was mired in a political stalemate between a United States- and Saudi-backed government — which included Sunni, Christian and Druze parties — and Hezbollah and its allies.
Hezbollah was infuriated by a government decision that outlawed its underground fiber-optic communication network, which was critical to its success during its 2006 war with Israel. Hezbollah’s leaders sent hundreds of fighters into largely Sunni neighborhoods of West Beirut. They overpowered Sunni militiamen and seized the offices and media outlets of political rivals, including Mr. Hariri.
Hezbollah’s success so alarmed the Sunni Arab states that Saudi Arabia toyed with the idea of sending an Arab military force to intervene in Lebanon. Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister at the time, asked a visiting American diplomat whether the United States and NATO could provide equipment, logistics and “naval and air cover” to assist such an army, according to a classified American diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks. Prince Faisal warned Washington that Hezbollah’s actions would lead to an “Iranian takeover of all Lebanon.”
Years later, Saudi leaders organized a similar force to wage their war in Yemen, against Houthi rebels allied with Iran. A day after Mr. Hariri’s resignation, the front page of a Saudi-owned pan-Arab newspaper declared, “Hariri departs Hezbollah’s republic.” The subtext was clear: Without its most prominent Sunni leader, Lebanon is under Hezbollah’s full control — and it will be fair game in the latest battle with Iran.
Mohamad Bazzi, an associate professor of journalism at New York University and the former Middle East bureau chief at Newsday, is writing a book about the proxy wars between Saudi Arabia and Iran.