BEIRUT (Reuters) - A top Iranian official and Lebanon’s Saad al-Hariri gave conflicting accounts on Tuesday of a key meeting they had held right before Hariri quit as prime minister, a move he attributed to regional meddling by Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.
The shock resignation has thrust Lebanon back onto the front line of a power struggle between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi‘ite Iran - a rivalry that has also buffeted Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Bahrain.
Hariri flew to Riyadh on Nov. 3, after meeting in Beirut Ali Akbar Velayati, the top foreign policy adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“Hariri claims that in our meeting he asked Iran to stop interfering in the Lebanese affairs, but he did not say such a thing,” Velayati was quoted as saying by Iranian state television’s website on Tuesday.
“Our meeting was not tense or violent at all. These are all lies,” he said.
Velayati said Iran hoped Hariri would return to Lebanon, accusing Riyadh of fanning the flames of tension as it “could not tolerate the strategic friendship” between Tehran and Beirut.
Hariri denied Velayati’s account that the Lebanese leader had offered to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
“Prime Minister Hariri did not offer mediation between any countries,” a statement from his press office said.
“He presented to Velayati his point of view about the need to stop Iranian interventions in Yemen as a gateway and a precondition for any improvement in ties between (Iran) and the kingdom,” it said.
A long-time Saudi ally, Hariri had first mentioned the Velayati meeting in a television interview on Sunday night, his first public comments since quitting.
He warned Lebanon was at risk of Gulf Arab sanctions because of regional meddling by Shi‘ite Hezbollah and said he would return to Lebanon within days.
In his resignation speech in a broadcast from Saudi Arabia on Nov. 4, Hariri said he feared assassination and accused Iran along with Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.
Top Lebanese government officials and senior politicians close to Hariri believe Saudi Arabia coerced him into quitting and has been holding him against his will since, though Hariri and Riyadh have denied this.
Reporting by Ellen Francis and Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean