Saad Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who resigned on November 4th in protest at Iranian interference in Lebanon, must return to Beirut with U.S. and French support.
The problem is quite simple: the longer Hariri stays in Saudi Arabia, the more Iranian interests aligned with the Lebanese Hezbollah will be able to strengthen their interests in his absence.
At present, Hariri's Lebanese adversaries are claiming that Saudi Arabia won't let him leave because it wants to disrupt Lebanon's democracy. According to the BBC, Lebanese President Michel Aoun (who kneels to the Hezbollah throne), tweeted that "Nothing justifies the failure of Prime Minister Hariri to return for 12 days. Therefore, we consider him to be held and detained, in violation of the Vienna Convention and human rights law."
Hariri will travel to France later this week and should travel to Beirut afterwards.
Of course, the concerns here are much greater than disabusing fake conspiracy theories. The priority is to stop Iranian domination of Lebanese politics. Under the Lebanese constitution, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the parliament speaker a Shia Muslim, and the president a Christian. And while Hariri is pro-western/pro-Saudi Sunni Muslim, Iran and Hezbollah have close allies in the form of President Aoun and Speaker Nabih Berri. Correspondingly, if Iran can get a Sunni puppet figure to replace Hariri in the prime minister's office, they'll control the executive branch.
And Iran is on the offensive. Benefitting from Bashar Assad's consolidation in Syria, the advance of its militia forces in Iraq, and its post-nuclear-deal cash windfall, Iran senses opportunity.
But if we're clever, we can stop them.
First off, seeing as Hariri's Future Movement party has twice as many Parliamentary seats as Hezbollah, Iran views Hariri as an obstacle to be corralled or killed. Hariri's vulnerability is also based on his close relationship with the Saudis. That makes him a target for Iranian assassination as a means by which to send a message to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. From Hariri's perspective the risk is a personal one: his father was killed by Assad and Hezbollah for the sin of serving Lebanese democracy.
The key is for the U.S. and France to lead an effort to strengthen Hariri's position.
For one, we'll have to act more aggressively against Iranian and Hezbollah interests in Beirut. This will require some risk taking, but Iranian interests must understand that they will face costs for their malevolence. The U.S. and France should also pledge that they will take unilateral action against those who threaten Hariri harm.
Second, we should provide greater support to Lebanese military units that would oppose Hezbollah if it attempted to remove its enemies from power. One possibility here would be to focus support on units like those of the Lebanese special forces, who are well trained and led and have longstanding links with the west. There is potential here: the head of the Lebanese Army has taken four separate training courses in the U.S. during his career.
Finally and most important will be efforts to strengthen the Hariri political bloc. There's new urgency here following electoral reforms introduced earlier this summer in which Lebanon reduced the number of constituencies from 26 to 15, and introduced a proportional representation system. The hope is that these efforts will open sectarian parties to greater competition and that future governments will have to build broader coalitions.
In turn, if Hariri's Future Movement can consolidate its alliance with two Christian parties, Lebanese forces, and Kataeb, Hariri might then be able to influence the Druze-led progressive socialist party to join them. At that point, Hezbollah would find itself in a far less confident position to be able to dictate efforts and Michel Aoun might reconsider his party's alliance with them.
To be clear, these efforts would not be intended towards fighting Hezbollah and its allies or wrecking their political power. Instead, the objective would be to counter Hezbollah and Iran with so many domestic and foreign political opponents that they reconsider their aggressive agenda.
It won't be easy, but it's better than a new Lebanese civil war.