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After Sudden Resignation, Lebanon's Prime Minister Says He Will Return 'Very Soon'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One more bit of international news for you. Last week, Lebanon's prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, suddenly resigned from his post in a televised address from Saudi Arabia. The resignation left Lebanon in shock and fueled speculation that he had been forced to resign by the Saudi royal family. Lebanon's president even suggested that Hariri was being detained in Saudi Arabia against his will. But in his first live interview, Hariri denied these allegations, and he even suggested that he might not quit as prime minister after all. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now from Beirut. Ruth, thank you so much for speaking with us.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So this is the first time that Hariri has broken his silence since he resigned. Tell us what he said, please.

SHERLOCK: Yes, it was a very strange interview on Future TV. That's the television associated with his political party. And he just tantalized his audience. He looked pale and exhausted. And at the beginning, he seemed to stick with the same script of his resignation speech last week. He denied that he'd been held against his will in Saudi Arabia. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER SAAD AL-HARIRI: (Speaking in foreign language).

SHERLOCK: Here he's saying that he will return to Lebanon very soon - within a matter of days, in fact, and formally tender his resignation. But then part of the way through the interview, he shifts gears and suddenly says, actually, he might not resign after all. He says he might be tempted to stay if Hezbollah - that's the Lebanese militia and political group that's sponsored by Iran - meets certain demands. Hezbollah's been fighting in Syria, but they're based in Lebanon and also in Iraq. And Hariri said that he'd remain prime minister essentially if they stop doing this, if they keep Lebanon out of regional conflicts.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of what caused all this?

SHERLOCK: Well, it seems clear from the reporting on this story now that Hariri was in some way coerced to make that first resignation speech. So the theory is that the Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, actually made this as a sort of power play to attack Hezbollah and Iran. But it's caused this huge international backlash. And the U.S. and the U.K. and other European countries are all denouncing what's happening and calling for stability in Lebanon. Maha Yahya, who's the director of the Middle East Center at the Carnegie international think tank, she told me that she thinks this new strategy of saying that he doesn't have to resign is kind of a way of everybody saving face.

MARTIN: Could you go back to a point that you made earlier where you mentioned that the Saudis may have intervened in Lebanon as a regional power play against Iran? Could you talk a little bit more about that?

SHERLOCK: Yes. So in Lebanon, Iran is backed by Hezbollah, and they're a militia. They're more powerful than the army here. They're also a powerful political group. And they've got representation in the cabinet now. And the Saudis have never respected Hariri very much. And they saw him as being toothless against Hezbollah. So they thought that if you remove Hariri, you clear the way for saying that the Lebanese government and Hezbollah are one in the same, and you encourage countries who oppose Iran - that's the U.S. and Israel - to crack down on Hezbollah there.

MARTIN: So can you give us a sense of how we should be looking at the next couple of days? I mean, what do you think the next steps will be?

SHERLOCK: Well, look. These demands by Hariri seem unrealistic. Hezbollah is hugely invested in the war in Syria. They've lost a large number of fighters there and in Iraq. And they're so powerful at the moment here that they're not just going to capitulate. But Hariri said this whole ordeal was intended as a positive shock. So the door has now been left open for some heavy backstage negotiations. So it - well, all remains to be seen really.

MARTIN: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Ruth, thank you.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.