This week, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, held a hearing on “The Latest Developments in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.” In her opening statement, she said the following:
The one true constant in the Middle East has been the uncertainty and instability of Lebanon since it gained its independence from France in the 1940s. Sectarian divisions and decades of mistrust among the predominate forces – Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shi’a Muslims – as well as outside actors exerting undue influence on what should be internal matters, has ensured that Lebanon will remain in a constant state of uncertainty and instability.
It was just seven weeks ago today, this subcommittee convened a hearing on U.S. policy toward Lebanon. I cautioned then, as I have for many years now, that U.S. policy in Lebanon must be calibrated to scale back Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah’s, influence while spurring much needed security, stability and prosperity to the country. Then, on November 4th, Lebanon’s Prime Minister departed for Saudi Arabia, where he announced his resignation from office.
It is probably no coincidence that this surprise announcement came on the very day that Saudi Arabia had intercepted a Houthi-fired missile outside of the International Airport in Riyadh. The Saudis blamed Iran and Hezbollah directly for providing the arms and support for the Houthis that allowed them to carry out this attack, calling it an act of war on Tehran’s part. It should also be noted that Iran provided the missiles for the Houthis that were fired directly at U.S. ships off the coast of Yemen as well. These events also happened to coincide with the crackdown by Saudi’s Crown Prince on that same day, which he says is an anti-corruption campaign, others say it’s a power grab – the truth may be somewhere in the middle.
Hariri, a Saudi citizen himself, stated in his resignation speech that Iran and Hezbollah had undermined Lebanon’s sovereignty and he said that his life was in danger. And if anyone would know what Iran, Hezbollah or other outside actors are capable of in Lebanon, it is Hariri. As we know, it was his father who was assassinated in 2005 in Beirut, with both Hezbollah and Syria’s Assad linked to that act of terror. And it is no secret that Iran’s and Hezbollah’s influence undermined the sovereignty of Lebanon. And unfortunately, we are seeing an effort by Iran to expand this influence and its presence across the region, which has given its main rival, Saudi Arabia, justifiable reasons for concern.
Hariri has since returned to Lebanon this week, where he has put his plans to resign on hold but has demanded that Hezbollah cease its interference in regional conflicts. I would take that a step further and say that Hezbollah and Iran must not be legitimized nor allowed to interfere in domestic issues as well.
I still believe the U.S. must remain cautious over ties between the terror group and the Lebanese Armed Forces, the LAF, and we should not put all of our support behind the LAF until those ties are severed completely. And while this Committee has focused on Hezbollah and Iran’s role in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, we haven’t spent much time focusing on Iran’s latest strategic position in Yemen.
The new Saudi Crown Prince has taken a series of drastic steps in recent weeks and has shown that he is perhaps more willing to engage Iran directly. And he is seeing what would be great cause for alarm in Saudi Arabia, for the Gulf, and for the United States. Aside from Iran’s continued support for the Houthis, there is an increasing concern of a Hezbollah presence in Yemen. Imagine what that would mean for Iran’s ability to interfere in internal matters of other countries and to put the entire region under threat. There is simply no way Saudi Arabia would allow for Hezbollah to gain a presence in Yemen and then build up an arsenal and presence on the Saudi border. Perhaps this is why we are seeing rumors of a willingness for Saudi and Israel to work together – Saudi now understands what it means to be living under constant and immediate threat from Hezbollah and Iran.
But these recent developments should be a cause of great concern for the U.S. and our partners. Lebanon is already hosting 1.5 million or more Syrian refugees – millions more would flee, likely making their way to Europe or elsewhere. It is also likely to spark yet another conflict as Iran continues its malign behavior and threatens its neighbors.
So how should the United States respond? We must make it clear that Iran cannot continue its destabilizing activity and we must continue to put pressure on it and its proxy, Hezbollah. We must make it clear that we support a stable Lebanon, free from outside interference, and free from Hezbollah’s damaging behavior. We must also make it clear that Iran’s support for the Houthis and its buildup of Hezbollah presence in Yemen are red lines that cannot be crossed. But we must also continue to support the people of Yemen and the people of Lebanon.
I believe that the U.S. and international partners need to have unfettered access to help deliver humanitarian assistance in Yemen. I welcome the announcement from Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition that it is reopening ports and the International Airport to allow the urgent flow of humanitarian aid to the people of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition must play a role to allow humanitarian assistance into Yemen but the Houthi leadership must stop preventing the shipment and distribution of life saving aid, without manipulation or diversion, to those people in critical need, particularly those residents in areas controlled by Houthi militias. I further call on all parties to work toward a cessation of hostilities and I urge the Houthi leadership to return to the peace process, and halt any further escalation including cross border attacks in Saudi Arabia.
We need to find a way to hold all parties accountable while working with those willing to work with us to curtail the violence and to bring stability to both Yemen and Lebanon, free from outside interference.
First elected to Congress in a special election in 1989, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., is the first woman to ever chair the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee. She announced earlier this year that she will not run for reelection in 2018.