BEIRUT (Dispatches) -- Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has reiterated his backing for Hezbollah despite pressure from Saudi Arabia to confront the resistance movement.
Speaking to the Wall Street Journal in his first interview with a U.S. newspaper since he withdrew his resignation in December - Hariri, dared to defy Saudi Arabia, largely thought to be behind his shock resignation from Riyadh in November.
Hezbollah are a potent political force in Lebanon and form part of a political coalition with Hariri, dominating Lebanon’s cabinet thought to be the strongest organ of Lebanon’s state.
"Hezbollah has been a member of this government. This is an inclusive government that has all the big political parties, and that brings political stability to the country,” Hariri said. "My main goal is to preserve this political stability for the unity of the country.”
At the same time that reports emerged suggesting that Hariri was being held against his will by the Saudis after a trip to Riyadh in November, the Saudis called for Hezbollah to be disbanded and rebuked them for interference in Lebanon’s politics.
This was interpreted as a sign that the Saudis had pushed Hariri to resign as part of a larger plan to weaken Hezbollah - and by extension its ally Iran.
Lebanon’s prime ministers, who are Sunni as required by Lebanon’s constitution, have traditionally taken the Saudi line on regional issues. But Hariri, keen to avoid becoming embroiled in the regional spat, said that his country will maintain ties with both countries and reject foreign meddling.
"We cannot accept interference from anyone in Lebanese politics,” Hariri said. "Our relationship with Iran—or with the (Persian) Gulf—has to be the best relationship, but one that serves the national interests of Lebanon.”
Maintaining stability is key to reviving Lebanon’s flagging economy and allowing the country’s annual growth to increase from between one and two percent today to four and six percent, Hariri said.
Hariri declined to discuss details of his stay in Saudi Arabia, but claimed that "Saudi Arabia never interfered directly in Lebanese politics” and that he hoped Riyadh would restart economic aid to Lebanon.
Hezbollah has played an increasingly important military role across the region, their battle-hardened fighters helping to turn the Syrian war in Bashar al-Assad’s favor.
Hariri admitted that Hezbollah’s withdrawal from Syria will take time as the situation there is more complex.
"Certain countries that are in Syria today consider Hezbollah as necessary. People who fight with Bashar al-Assad — Russia and Iran — consider them not interfering in Syrian affairs but as being part of that regime solution,” he said.