PARIS, Nov 18 (Reuters) - Saad al-Hariri, who resigned as Lebanon’s prime minister this month while in Saudi Arabia, said on Saturday he would clarify his position when he returns to Beirut next week.
Hariri’s resignation on Nov. 4 threw Lebanon into political crisis and put it center-stage in the Middle East’s overarching rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and its allies and a bloc led by Shi’ite Iran.
“With regard to the political situation in Lebanon, I will go to Beirut in the coming days, I will participate in the independence celebrations, and it is there that I will make known my position on these subjects after meeting President (Michel) Aoun,” Hariri said after holding talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.
Hariri declined to take questions, but is set to return to Beirut by Wednesday when Lebanon celebrates its independence day. He thanked Macron, who has been mediating as part of French efforts to try to ease tensions across the region, for his help.
Macron had leveraged France’s close relations with both Lebanon and Saudi Arabia to secure a deal that saw Hariri travel to Paris and open the door to a resolution of the crisis.
Hariri, who arrived at his residence in Paris in the early hours of the morning, told Aoun in a phone call from Paris that he would be in Lebanon on Wednesday for the celebrations, the Lebanese president said on Twitter.
“Lebanon is being shaken so it’s important Hariri comes to Paris for us to work with him on the best way out of the crisis,” said a senior French diplomat.
“We’re trying to create the conditions for a de-escalation in the region. We want to avoid a proliferation of crises that could get out of control.”
Hariri’s abrupt resignation and continued stay in Saudi Arabia has caused fears for Lebanon’s stability. He visited France with his wife and one son, which is seen as part of a possible way out of the crisis, although two of his younger children remain in Saudi Arabia.
Okab Saqr, a member of parliament for Hariri’s Future Movement, said after Hariri’s visit to France he would have “a small Arab tour” before traveling to Beirut.
A French presidential source said Macron had reiterated that Paris wanted Hariri to return to Lebanon to ensure the country’s political system continued to function and that it was imperative it remained “disassociated” from regional crises.
The source said Macron would continue to be active on the dossier in the coming days and that France was considering whether to host a meeting of the International Lebanon Support Group to discuss the political crisis.
IRAN TAKES AIM AT MACRON
The crisis has thrust Lebanon into the regional rivalry pitting Saudi Arabia and its allies against a bloc led by Iran, which includes the heavily armed Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group.
Aoun has called Hariri a Saudi hostage and refused to accept his resignation unless he returns to Lebanon. Saudi Arabia and Hariri say his movements are not restricted.
Lebanon maintains a delicate sectarian balance after Sunnis, Shi’ites, Christians and Druze fought a civil war between 1975 and 1990, with factions often backed by regional rivals.
Hariri, a Sunni Muslim, is a long-time ally of Saudi Arabia. Aoun, a Christian, is a political ally of Hezbollah. Hariri’s government, a power-sharing coalition formed last year, includes Hezbollah.
France, which controlled Lebanon between the world wars, has sought to play a key role in defusing tension with Macron personally getting involved and putting him at the heart of a regional power struggle that will test his diplomatic skills.
That was evident since the outbreak of the Lebanese crisis over the last week with a surprise visit to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, followed by a flurry of calls, sending his foreign minister to Saudi Arabia and then the invitation to Hariri, which caught many diplomats unawares.
While undoubtedly a diplomatic coup for Macron, some regional and French diplomats have cautioned that his strategy to try to appease all sides in the region may backfire.
Paris has intensified its rhetoric over Iran’s regional activities. On Thursday, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, speaking alongside his Saudi counterpart, denounced Tehran’s “hegemonic temptations.” Iran responded by accusing France of taking sides and Macron on Friday said Iran should clarify its ballistic missile program. That was met by a rebuke in Tehran.
On Saturday, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, said Macron should stay out of its affairs.
(Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch in Beirut; Editing by Janet Lawrence)
How to vote
Vote-by-mail ballot request deadline: Varies by state
For the Nov 3 election: States are making it easier for citizens to vote absentee by mail this year due to the coronavirus. Each state has its own rules for mail-in absentee voting. Visit your state election office website to find out if you can vote by mail.Get more information
In-person early voting dates: Varies by state
Sometimes circumstances make it hard or impossible for you to vote on Election Day. But your state may let you vote during a designated early voting period. You don't need an excuse to vote early. Visit your state election office website to find out whether they offer early voting.My Election Office
General Election: Nov 3, 2020
Polling hours on Election Day: Varies by state/localityMy Polling Place