BEIRUT (Reuters) - Iran’s Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday became the first foreign minister to meet Lebanon’s new president, underscoring Tehran’s struggle with its regional arch-rival Saudi Arabia for influence in Beirut.
He met Michel Aoun, a Christian leader who was elected president last week. Aoun is a close ally of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group, and Iran welcomed Aoun’s election as a victory for Hezbollah.
Speaking at a joint press conference with Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil, Zarif said Lebanon’s presidential election should serve as an example to other politically troubled countries in the region.
“The Lebanese people showed it is possible to reach a solution acceptable to all, or what we call a win-win situation,” Zarif said.
Aoun also met an envoy sent by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad earlier in the day. Iran is a political and military ally of Assad in the Syrian civil war, where his troops are supported by Iran-backed militias and Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon.
Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran also back opposing factions in Yemen, Iraq and Bahrain. They broke diplomatic ties earlier this year after Riyadh’s execution of a Shi’ite cleric and a subsequent attack by protesters on its embassy in Tehran.
“We hope others also come to this understanding: that there can only be a political solution to the crises in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, but while continuing the fight against terrorism,” Zarif said.
Zarif, who was accompanied on the two-day visit by a high- profile political and economic delegation, said he hoped to expand ties with Lebanon.
Former army commander Aoun was elected by the Lebanese parliament as president last Monday, ending a 29-month presidential vacuum. Aoun then asked Sunni Muslim leader Saad al-Hariri to start consultations to form a new government, of which Hariri would be prime minister.
The empty presidency was a symptom of an underlying political struggle between rival factions in Lebanon, which has been made worse by the war in neighboring Syria. It has paralyzed decision-making, economic development and basic services, and raised fears for the country’s stability.
The deal to appoint Aoun as president and Hariri as prime minister has underscored Hezbollah’s dominant role in Lebanon. It has also demonstrated a diminished position for Saudi Arabia, Hariri’s main regional backer, which seems more focused on confronting Iranian influence elsewhere in the region.
Zarif said he would meet Hariri on Tuesday.
“In my meeting with Saad al-Hariri tomorrow I will emphasize Iran’s determination to cooperate with all Lebanese people, from any group or ethnicity,” he said at the joint press conference.
Under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system, worked out upon independence and confirmed after a bitter 15-year civil war, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shi’ite.
Syrian envoy Mansour Azzam, who is head of presidential affairs, greeted Aoun on behalf of Syria’s Assad, saying he hoped Aoun’s election would contribute to stability in Lebanon and in the region.
Azzam said there would be “no new page” in Syria-Lebanon relations and they would continue in a balanced way.
Aoun’s meetings with Iranian and Syrian dignitaries came on the same day that Prime Minister-designate Hariri said Lebanon’s new administration was a chance to revive ties with the Gulf Arab countries.
“The formation of the government is a chance to renew the emphasis on Lebanon’s Arab identity and return momentum and heat to Lebanon’s relations with its brethren in the Gulf Cooperation Council,” Hariri said after meeting council ambassadors to Lebanon.
Reporting by Lisa Barrington and Bozorgmehr Sharafedin.; Editing by Angus McDowall and Larry King