Lebanon foreign minister skips Arab League summit on Iran

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Arab foreign ministers will gather in Cairo on Sunday at the request of Riyadh

Lebanon's Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil in Ankara on 16 November (AFP)
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Monday 20 November 2017 2:24 UTC
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Lebanon's foreign minister will not attend an extraordinary Arab League meeting on Sunday called by Saudi Arabia to discuss "violations" committed by Iran, a ministry source told AFP.

Arab foreign ministers will gather in Cairo on Sunday at the request of Riyadh, whose simmering regional rivalry with Tehran has escalated in recent weeks. 

But Lebanon's top diplomat Gebran Bassil will not be among them, a foreign ministry source said.

"This morning, a decision was taken that Lebanon would be presented by Antoine Azzam, the permanent representative to the Arab League," the source said.

"Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil will not be present."

For more than a decade, Lebanon's political class has been largely split between Iran-backed movement Hezbollah and its allies, and a Saudi-supported coalition led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri.

Hariri stepped down from his post on 4 November in a televised address from Riyadh, sparking fears Lebanon would be caught up in the spiralling tensions between Riyadh and Tehran.

Sunni Muslim powerhouse Saudi Arabia and Iran, the predominant Shia power, are long-standing rivals based as much in geostrategic interests as religious differences.

According to a memo seen last week by AFP, the Saudi request for an Arab League meeting was based on a missile it says its air defences intercepted near Riyadh after being fired from Yemen on 4 November.

A Saudi-led coalition has been battling Shia Houthi rebels in Yemen, and it has accused the Iran-backed rebels of firing the missile.

Cairo meeting

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told Reuters last week the kingdom's actions in the Middle East were only a response to what he called the "aggression" of Iran.

"What Iran is doing against some Arab countries calls for taking more than one measure to stop these violations, interferences and threats, which are carried out through many various means," Hossam Zaki, the Arab League assistant secretary, told Asharq al-Awsat newspaper in an interview.

"Stopping them requires a joint Arab policy."

He said the meeting would send a "strong message" for Iran to step back from its current policies.

Egypt's state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram cited an Arab diplomatic source saying the meeting may refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council.

Saudi Arabia accuses Hezbollah of a role in the launching of the missile at Riyadh from Yemen this month. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Iran's supply of rockets to Houthi militias was an act of "direct military aggression".

Yemen’s civil war pits the internationally recognised government, backed by Saudi Arabia and its allies, against the Houthis and forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Iran denies charges it supplies Houthi forces.

On Saturday, anticipating confrontation at the Cairo meeting, a senior Lebanese official told Reuters that Lebanon's foreign minister might not attend, though a final decision would be taken on Sunday morning.

After French intervention, Hariri flew to France and met French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Saturday.

Speaking in Paris, Hariri said he would clarify his position when he returns to Beirut in the coming days. He said he would take part in Lebanese independence day celebrations, which are scheduled for Wednesday.

Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman later accused Iran of "direct military aggression" against the kingdom by supplying the rebels with ballistic missiles.