December 8, 2017 / 4:04 AM / 4 days ago

World powers push Saudis, Iran to stop interfering in Lebanon

PARIS (Reuters) - World powers attempted to shore up Lebanon’s stability on Friday by pushing Saudi Arabia and Iran to stop interfering in its politics and urging Hezbollah to rein in its regional activities.

Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri speaks with French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian as they attend the Lebanon international Support Group meeting in Paris, France, December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Lebanon plunged into crisis on Nov. 4 when Saad al-Hariri resigned as prime minister while he was in Saudi Arabia, saying he feared assassination and criticizing the Saudis’ regional arch-rival Iran along with its Lebanese ally Hezbollah.

After international pressure and negotiations between Lebanese political factions, he rescinded his resignation on Tuesday and his coalition government, which includes Hezbollah, reaffirmed a state policy of staying out of conflicts in Arab states.

The International Lebanon Support Group (GIS), a body that includes the five members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States -- met in Paris on Friday to try to reinforce Hariri’s hand to prevent a new escalation.

“Disassociation applies to everyone - inside and outside,” Jean-Yves Le Drian said at a news conference with Hariri after the meeting.

“These principles were reaffirmed this morning,” he said, later referring specifically to both Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Without naming Hezbollah, he urged all sides not to “import regional tensions” into Lebanon.

Hariri said that any breach of the policy of non-interference would drag Lebanon back into the “danger zone”.

“The disassociation policy is in the overarching interest of Lebanon,” he said.

From L-R, Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, French President Emmanuel Macron, French Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian, and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend the Lebanon International Support Group meeting in Paris, France, December 8, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The meeting had earlier been opened by President Emmanuel Macron. He has invested political capital in the crisis and 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 last month.

“(The Group) calls upon all Lebanese parties to implement this tangible policy of disassociation from and non-interference in external conflicts, as an important priority,” the final communique read.

Saudi concern over the influence wielded by Shi‘ite Muslim Iran and Hezbollah in other Arab states had been widely seen as the root cause of the crisis, which raised fears for Lebanon’s economic and political stability.

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The Lebanese policy of “dissociation” was declared in 2012 to keep the deeply divided state out of regional conflicts such as the civil war in neighboring Syria. Despite the policy, Hezbollah is heavily involved there, sending thousands of fighters to help Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

He said that while the diplomatic language for the final declaration would not single out any party, the message was that Saudi Arabia and Iran should not influence Lebanese politics and that Hezbollah should rein in its regional activities.

“Friday’s meeting isn’t anti-Saudi or anti-Iranian, it’s pro-Lebanon,” a senior French diplomat said before the meeting.

Highlighting the difficulties of upholding such a policy, Hezbollah backed calls on Thursday for a new Palestinian uprising in reaction to U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The stability of Lebanon may seem like a small miracle given the many conflicts that destabilize the region, but it is maintained at the cost of sacrifice, dialogue and compromise,” Hariri said earlier alongside Macron.

Those attending Friday’s meeting also committed to strengthening the Lebanese army through a conference in Rome and to support a meeting in Brussels also in 2018 to discuss how to help Lebanon cope with the 1.4 million refugees it hosts.

A separate donor conference will also take place in March in Paris to boost the country’s economy with a view to stimulating investments once expected legislative elections take place in May.

Reporting by John Irish, Editing by Andrew Heavens and Angus MacSwan

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