Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri began a three-day visit to Iran yesterday, where he will work to reach an agreement on how the expected indictment from the UN tribunal investigating his father's assassination should be handled. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was killed in 2005.
This is the younger Hariri's first visit to Tehran, some 15 years after his late father was there. He is also expected to sign a number of economic and cultural cooperation agreements with Iran which, until recently, he accused of intervening in Lebanon's domestic affairs.
Lebanese sources made it clear, however, that they do not intend to sign a military collaboration agreement with Iran, as this may run counter to UN sanctions against Tehran.
Hariri's visit to Iran is not exactly a lovefest. The Lebanese leader turned down a number of Iranian invitations for a visit to avoid angering Saudi Arabia, his country's ally and guardian, which considers Iran a rival for influence in the region; he also used the refusals to highlight the differences between himself and Hezbollah.
Moreover, Hariri said in a recent interview with the Washington Post that during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent visit to Lebanon he made it clear to the Iranian president that he disagrees with Tehran's strategic outlook - which considers Lebanon part of a regional axis. Hariri also said that Lebanon signed the Arab Peace Initiative in 2002 for peace with Israel, which he supports despite Iranian opposition to the initiative.
The visit is not one of subjugation, but an essential step in recent diplomatic efforts aimed at preventing a political crisis or the outbreak of violence in Lebanon after the indictment is issued against the suspects involved in the Rafik Hariri assassination, who may include senior Hezbollah figures.
Saad Hariri is working hard to gain consensus and calm those who may endanger Lebanon's stability. For example, in that same interview to the Washington Post, Hariri stressed that he does not consider Hezbollah responsible for the assassination. The Lebanese prime minister made an apparent about-face, after previously accusing Hezbollah, and earlier Syria, of being involved in the killing of his father.
Syria and Saudi Arabia restored normal relations last year after five years in which ties were tested, following the Hariri assassination. They are now trying to put together a framework of agreements which could prevent the political collapse of Lebanon in the wake of the international investigation into the murder.
The Syrian president and the son of the Saudi king are working directly on the text of the agreement, both realizing, along with Lebanon and Iran, that it will be impossible to prevent the publication of the indictment or influence the United Nations tribunal carrying out the probe. Much of the effort is being put on the Lebanese sides to agree on how to respond to the indictment. Details are still sketchy and Lebanese sources say that "significant progress has been achieved."
Turkey, whose prime minister visited Beirut last Thursday, is also trying to influence events, and has suggested that the tribunal delay issuing its indictment for a year, in which time efforts can be made to ease the tensions. Saudi Arabia and Syria are reluctant to adopt the Turkish proposal and would rather see the matter brought to a quick end.
It seems that even if Hezbollah officials are blamed, the sides will agree to merely consider them "rotten apples" whose actions do not reflect official views, and who acted of their own accord.
At the same time, Hezbollah will not be required to disarm and will still be considered part of Lebanon's defense organization.
In Lebanon, the prevailing view is that no side is interested in risking a civil war or a war with Israel. Lebanese analysts also believe neither Syria nor Iran are interested in anarchy in Lebanon.
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