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Assailing Iran, Lebanese prime minister quits

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Prime Minister Saad Hariri of Lebanon said Saturday that he had quit his post, blaming Iran for interference in Arab affairs and throwing his country, already awash with tensions and regional rivalries, into deeper uncertainty.

Hariri, speaking in a televised address from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, condemned Iran and its growing power and influence in the region. He also assailed Iran's Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party that is part of the national unity Cabinet he led.

"Wherever Iran settles, it sows discord, devastation and destruction, proven by its interference in the internal affairs of Arab countries," Hariri said, adding that Iran's "hands" in the region "will be cut off."

The surprise announcement — which shocked even his own staff — was an ominous sign of the escalating regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, analysts said, indicating the growing dominance of Iran and Hezbollah as well as the Saudis' increasingly assertive response.

Lebanese and regional analysts, whether supporters or opponents of Hezbollah, said it appeared that Hariri had been pressured to resign by his patrons, the Saudis, as they and the United States ratchet up efforts to counter Iranian influence. The resignation came after weeks of sharp American and Saudi condemnations of Iran, including from President Donald Trump, and new U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah.

By pushing out Hariri, analysts said, Saudi Arabia could deny Hezbollah a credible Sunni governing partner — an attempt to isolate it and deny it the fig leaf of a national unity government.

"They concluded that Hariri was serving as more of a cover for Iranian and Hezbollah influence than as a counterweight to them," said Rob Malley, a former special Middle East adviser to President Barack Obama and the vice president of the International Crisis Group.

Yet the resignation also shows how few options Iran's opponents have. Without Hariri in power, the United States and Saudi Arabia lose their main partner in the Lebanese government.

Across the political spectrum, analysts and officials said the resignation ushered in new dangers. If the next government is more pro-Hezbollah, they said, that could lead to devastating sanctions. It could even increase the chances of a new war with Israel, which would see added justification for its argument that there is little distinction between Hezbollah and the Lebanese state.

Hariri even raised the specter of internal violence. He compared the atmosphere in Lebanon now to the days before the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, saying he believed his own life was in danger.

"I sensed what's being woven in secret to target my life," he said.

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