Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah defiantly challenged the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) official declaration of his group as a terrorist organization, saying Saudi Arabia is the real loser because it lacks the backing of many Arab countries.
On March 6, in his first response to the GCC's pronouncement March 2, Hezbollah Secretary-General Nasrallah doubled down on his criticism of Saudi Arabia, indicating he is undeterred.
His reaction, however, may not necessarily trigger tension in Lebanon.
Speaking via video from Ansar, Lebanon, Nasrallah implied that the reaction of the Arab people toward the GCC decision was a defeat for Riyadh.
The GCC consists of six monarchies: Saudia Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. However, many prominent figures from across the Arab world rejected the decision, citing Hezbollah's role in fighting Israeli occupation and liberating Lebanese territory. Those figures included the leader of the Ennahda Islamic movement in Tunisia, Rachid Ghannouchi, and the founder of the Popular Current in Egypt, Hamdeen Sabahi.
Nasrallah also noted that there was no consensus on the topic at the March 2 meeting in Tunisia of the Arab interior ministers. When that meeting ended with an official statement designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, both Lebanon and Iraq objected and Algeria dissociated itself. Tunisia's minister signed the statement, but the country's president later rejected the terrorism label.
Nasrallah seems to be focusing on Tunisia to help emphasize that Riyadh does not speak on behalf of the “predominantly Sunni” Arab states.
The Hezbollah leader said Saudi Arabia is failing in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain and appeared to mock Riyadh. “I understand the Saudi anger,” he said. “When one fails, he becomes angry — the least he could do is get angry.”
A source close to Hezbollah who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity said Nasrallah’s statements reflect “a form of psychological warfare, similar to the method employed against Israel, by highlighting Hezbollah’s strengths and Saudi Arabia’s weaknesses.”
According to Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA), Saudi Arabia “will work on getting the Arab League to adopt the same [terrorist] designation during the upcoming summit to be held in Mauritania” on April 7. He further told Al-Monitor that Riyadh may work on a “similar measure to be adopted at the United Nations.”
Hezbollah is already considered a terrorist organization by the United States and many of its Western allies.
Riyadh views Hezbollah as a central player in the Iranian-led Shiite regional axis, which includes Iraq and Syria. Riyadh's sentiment against Hezbollah appears to reflect an escalation against this regional bloc as a whole, which became more evident as the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers went into effect Jan. 16.
Earlier in January, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran, which it said was in response to the attack by Iranian protesters on its embassy in Tehran. The real reason, however, may very well be related to Saudi Arabia’s frustration with the nuclear deal.
The latest measures toward Lebanon, the escalation toward Hezbollah and the significant Saudi setbacks in the proxy wars in Syria and Yemen all seem to reflect the latest round in the intensifying feud between Riyadh and the Iranian-led regional axis.
However, it is not clear what more Riyadh can do against Hezbollah, nor does Riyadh seem likely to succeed in isolating the movement in Lebanon.
A United Nations measure against Hezbollah may be difficult, as 40 UN countries contribute to UN Interim Forces in Lebanon peacekeeping troops, which number more than 12,000. These troops are deployed with the consent of Hezbollah, and a UN measure against the group could create serious complications, particularly in the pro-Hezbollah turf of south Lebanon.
Meanwhile, there appears to be a consensus that the “no holds barred” match between Hezbollah and Riyadh will not inflame tensions in Lebanon. The Hezbollah official said, “The final decision on whether or not to escalate in Lebanon does not rest with the Saudis, but rather with the Americans,” adding that the Americans “do not want escalation in Lebanon.”
According to INEGMA's Kahwaji, the pro-Saudi March 14 bloc in Lebanon not only has ties with Riyadh, but also with countries “like the US and France who do not share with Saudi Arabia the exact same policy toward Lebanon.”
The major US concern regarding Lebanon is to prevent the Islamic State (IS) from expanding there from Syria. On Jan. 22, the head of the US Central Command, Gen. Lloyd Austin, visited Lebanon and pledged support for the Lebanese army, which has been engaged in border clashes with militants.
What supports the notion that the West is against escalation in Lebanon is that Lebanese Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk, who objected to the terrorist designation of Hezbollah in Tunisia, is a member of the pro-Saudi Future Movement. In addition, the leader of the movement, Saad Hariri, announced March 2 that bilateral dialogue with Hezbollah will continue, despite the rising tensions between Riyadh and Hezbollah.
That, along with the US stance, increases the likelihood that Lebanon will be spared for now from the repercussions of the Hezbollah-Saudi spat.
While Saudi Arabia may view Lebanon as the latest arena in which to settle scores with the Iranian-led axis, the kingdom's Western allies appear keen to maintain Lebanon's stability. They want to preserve what remains of the functioning Lebanese institutions, particularly the Lebanese government headed by Prime Minister Tammam Salam, who is calling for Hezbollah to improve its ties with Saudi Arabia.