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Saad Hariri’s ‘Moderate Awakening’

An exclusive interview with Lebanon’s former prime minister on the eve of the trial against the four Hezbollah members who murdered his father.

12:20 PM, Jan 17, 2014 • By LEE SMITH
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Hariri resisted the notion that it’s a sectarian conflict, or that it has anything to do with religion. To be sure, said Hariri, “politicians will often try to inject religion into politics because it’s a very easy move. But this is not about religion. For Iran it’s about expansionist politics, it’s a political maneuver meant to exploit religious strife and sentiment.”

The real conflict, said Hariri, is between moderates and extremists. “What’s new in the region,” said Hariri, “is that the moderates are fighting back—in places like Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and Syria, the moderates are fighting the extremists, regardless of their confessional sect.”

Moderate Syrian Sunnis are fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, said Hariri, and the same is happening in Iraq. And it’s not just Iraqi Sunnis, the awakening movement and the tribes, that are pushing back against Maliki. “In Iraq the Shia moderates are taking a position against Maliki and Iranian influence. And it’s happening in Lebanon, too, where many Shia are in revolt. Sure, everyone is gung-ho when fighting breaks out, but when they see body bags coming back it’s different. The Shia see the body bags coming back from the fighting in Syria and they are asking, ‘what is Hezbollah doing fighting in Syria?’”

Hariri explained that what he calls the “moderate awakening” is all part of the same trend that the STL trial embodies. If the Middle East is in violent turmoil at present, the “moderate awakening” is pushing it toward non-violence. The problem, however, is that the great power that ostensibly intends to promote moderation, non-violence, and stability in the Middle East has effectively come down on the side of the extremists.

The Obama administration pays lip service to Middle Eastern moderates—Secretary of State John Kerry called to express his condolences over the assassination of Chatah, Hariri told me, and his continued support for the STL—but offers little in the way of practical support. Even before the White House let moderate Syrian rebel units wither on the vine, it stood by idly while Bashar al-Assad and his allies tortured and murdered unarmed protestors. The Geneva II talks scheduled for later this month cannot obscure the fact that by signing on to the Russian initiative to rid Assad of his chemical weapons, Obama effectively partnered with the regime—and against the Syrians whose families, friends and neighbors Assad has slaughtered.

Hariri is grateful to the United States—as well as France and other European powers and the Arabs—for its contributions to the STL, but at a certain point Arab moderates are likely to wonder why the White House typically waits until they are dead before they are tendered support. Indeed it is not clear that the administration is even capable of distinguishing moderates from extremists. According to White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, standing aside while Hezbollah and al-Qaeda duke it out would benefit U.S. interests—as if the United States has no interest in American allies, i.e. moderates, prevailing or even surviving the crossfire.

If the Obama administration believes that its engagement with Iran and the interim deal over Tehran’s nuclear weapons program will stabilize the Middle East, the empirical evidence suggests otherwise. Earlier this week, Iran’s lead negotiator with the White House, Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif, laid a wreath on the grave of Imad Mughniyeh, the man who may well have given the orders to his cousin to kill Rafik Hariri.

“Maybe there’s something good that will come out of the P5+1 interim deal with  Iran,” says Saad Hariri. “Some people think we want conflict, but it’s the last thing we want. The issue is that the United States knows exactly what Iran is up to in the region. It wants to convince the west that it is moderate but that is still far from being proven.  And then if Iran doesn't change policies and still the United States decides to turn a blind eye to what Iran is doing, then that’s U.S. policy, not mine.”

Instead, as the most outspoken leader of the Middle East’s “moderate awakening,” with the STL Hariri has chosen to confront the assassins head on. 

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