LAST_UPDATEThu, 19 Jul 2018 11pm

Missing Lebanese Prime Minister Stirs Middle East Tensions

BEIRUT — When Lebanon’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, made a sudden trip abroad last week, it was taken at first to be a routine visit with his political patron, Saudi Arabia. But the next day, he unexpectedly announced his resignation by video from Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

He has yet to return to Lebanon.

On Friday, the Iranian-backed militia Hezbollah, part of his governing coalition at home, charged that the Saudis were holding him against his will, while the Saudis have said they were protecting him from an unspecified assassination plot.

Now the Hariri case has become just one in a profusion of bewildering events that are escalating tensions in the Middle East and fueling anxiety about whether the region is on the verge of war.

Even before the events of the past week, analysts and officials in the region had been increasingly anxious what they see as a volatile combination: an impulsive, youthful Saudi leader escalating threats to roll back growing Iranian influence, an equally impulsive Trump administration signaling broad agreement with Saudi policies, and increasingly pointed warnings from Israel that it may eventually fight another war with Hezbollah.

Now analysts and diplomats are scrambling to figure out what the latest developments mean, whether they are connected and whether, as some analysts fear, they are part of a buildup to a regional war.

On Saturday evening, a missile fired from Yemen came close to Riyadh before being shot down. Saudi Arabia blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the missile, suggesting that they had aided the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels in Yemen to fire it.

Israeli officials have been publicly predicting another war with Hezbollah while also vowing to do all they can to postpone it.

World leaders have sought to tamp down tensions.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Friday “against any party, within or outside Lebanon, using Lebanon as a venue for proxy conflicts or in any manner contributing to instability in that country,” a message apparently aimed at Hezbollah as well as Saudi Arabia.

A group of countries and organizations interested in Lebanon’s stability met Friday with the Lebanese president, Michel Aoun, and issued a statement expressing “concern regarding the situation and prevailing uncertainty in Lebanon” and calling for Lebanon to be “shielded from tensions in the region.”