BEIRUT: In a new escalation of Saudi-Iranian tensions that could impact Lebanon, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir Tuesday accused Iran of destabilizing the region through Hezbollah and “terrorist attacks.”
Jubeir also dismissed as “laughable” a recent statement made by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in which he talked about a possible rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia that are currently locked in a bitter struggle for power and influence in the volatile region.
Speaking to reporters at the Saudi Embassy in London, Jubeir reiterated his country’s position that Tehran must change its policies before any improvement in Saudi-Iranian ties long strained by the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain, where the two regional heavyweights back opposite sides.
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The sudden surge in Saudi-Iranian tension is also bound to leave a negative impact on the situation in Lebanon and relations between rival factions, where Riyadh and Tehran support opposing parties.
Zarif said last month that Iran would soon exchange diplomatic visits after the two countries severed diplomatic ties last year.
“The comments of the [Iranian] foreign minister are laughable,” Jubeir said. “If Iran wants to have good relations with Saudi Arabia, it has to change its policies. It has to respect international law.”
“At this time, we do not see ... that they’re serious about wanting to be a good neighbor,” Jubeir said. “Iran is destabilizing the region through Hezbollah and terrorist attacks,” he added.
Saudi Arabia and its partners in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council – Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and Bahrain – have long accused Iran of intervening in their internal affairs and destabilizing the region through Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias operating in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
The GCC states last year labeled Hezbollah a “terrorist organization” following its deep involvement in the Syrian fighting on the side of President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Zarif was quoted by the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) that diplomatic visits could take place after the hajj ends in the first week of September. But Jubeir said that diplomatic exchanges with Iran over hajjarrangements for Iranian pilgrims did not represent a normalization of relations and that such contacts had nothing to do with politics.
“We had the hajj season, and when we have the hajj, we try not to politicize it. ... But this is not normalization,” the Saudi minister said. “The meetings around the hajj, have nothing to do with the politics. It’s a religious issue.”
Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are at their worst in years, with each accusing the other of subverting regional security and supporting opposite sides in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Jubeir’s statement came a day after Saudi Minister of State for Arab Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan launched a scathing attack on Hezbollah, calling it “the party of Satan” and accusing it of committing “inhuman crimes” against the Arab nation.
Sabhan, who paid a one-week visit to Lebanon last month during which he met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and a number of Lebanese politicians, but did not meet with President Michel Aoun or Speaker Nabih Berri, took to Twitter to warn the Lebanese of the consequences of Hezbollah’s actions.
“The effects of the inhuman crimes carried out by the party of Satan against our [Arab] nation will definitely reflect on Lebanon,” Sabhan tweeted Monday. “The Lebanese will have to choose between being with it or against it [Hezbollah]. The blood of the Arabs is precious.”Sabhan’s diatribe against Hezbollah came on the same day Hezbollah MP Nawwaf Musawi lashed out at Saudi Arabia, accusing it of committing “terrorist and criminal actions” against the Yemeni people.
Separately, Berri reassured the Lebanese that the government would remain in place despite divisions among ministers threatening its unity over a controversial electricity plan and a Hezbollah deal with Daesh (ISIS) that led to the militants’ pullout from the northeastern border region and the uncovering of the fate of nine kidnapped servicemen.
“The government is not in jeopardy. Do we need better than this government?” Berri was quoted as telling visitors at his Ain al-Tineh residence.
But Berri appeared to rule out the possibility of holding by-elections to fill three vacant parliamentary seats in the northern city of Tripoli and the Kesrouan district. “May God have mercy on the by-elections,” he said, adding that he was not worried about holding parliamentary elections planned in May next year. But he warned that any attempt to scuttle the elections would amount to “a coup in the country.”
Meanwhile, the Hezbollah deal with Daesh and the electricity reform plan are two contentious issues likely to dominate Cabinet discussions this week as some ministers intend to raise them from outside the agenda, political sources said Tuesday.
Following Hariri’s return to Beirut from visits to France and Saudi Arabia, it has been decided that the Cabinet would meet at 11:30 a.m. Thursday at the Grand Serail to discuss 44 items on the agenda.
These include the appointment of a director-general of cooperatives at the Agriculture Ministry, the issuance of Treasury bonds in Lebanese pounds to repay debts incurred at the state-run Rafik Hariri Hospital, and the Energy Ministry’s proposal for electricity transmission.
A political source said that some ministers, mainly from the Lebanese Forces, who were irked by Hezbollah’s deal with Daesh that secured a safe passage to the militants from the mountainous areas of Ras Baalbeck and Al-Qaa to eastern Syria, intend to raise this issue during the Cabinet session.
But Hariri will intervene as he did in previous sessions to set aside any contentious topic to prevent a new split within the Cabinet, the source said.
Similarly, some ministers are expected to discuss the report prepared by the Tenders Department that raised questions over the new tender documents presented by Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil for the lease of additional power-generating barges.
The report contained a series of “legal gaps” that prevent the new tender documents from being put into effect, local media reported Tuesday.
The Cabinet last month approved new tender documents that were sent to the Tenders Department, which outlined the requirements and conditions that would allow companies to bid for the contract to provide the power barges.
The lease of power-generating barges is the linchpin of Abi Khalil’s plan to end Lebanon’s chronic severe power rationing.
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