ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Lebanon is a tiny country, but it often reflects the larger struggles around it. Nearly a week ago, its prime minister fled the country and then shocked Lebanese people with an address he made from Saudi Arabia. Saad Hariri said he was resigning because of outside interference, namely by Iran, and the group it backs in Lebanon, Hezbollah. Hariri said his life was in danger.
Well, many Lebanese don't buy that. They say it's the Saudis who forced Hariri to resign as part of a regional rivalry with Iran. NPR's Ruth Sherlock joins us now from Beirut. And Ruth, first tell us about how Hezbollah fits into the power structure in Lebanon.
RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Well, as you know, this is a country that's divided between Shia and Sunni Muslims and Christians. And Hezbollah, which is both a political party and an armed militia, is very popular with Shia Muslims here. And they have become increasingly powerful. They have Iranian support. But they're also part of the government. They've come to dominate the cabinet in the last year.
SIEGEL: Hezbollah actually signed off on Hariri becoming prime minister although he's not one of them. He's a Sunni Muslim with ties to Saudi Arabia. So what could have prompted him to flee Lebanon for Saudi Arabia?
SHERLOCK: That is the big question. He said in his resignation speech that he was leaving because he'd received death threats from Hezbollah. But it's hard to see why they would want to do that at a time when they're so powerful here. The other option, as you said, Robert, is that he didn't actually flee but rather that he was ambushed by the Saudis when his plane landed in Riyadh. He may have gone to see his family who live there and then found himself presented with a speech where he was told that he had to read that out and resign.
The Saudis deny this, but they have also meddled in Lebanon's politics for a long time, just like Iran. And they've never really valued Hariri. They always saw him as being toothless against Hezbollah. So in removing him, the Saudis might be thinking that they can easily claim now that the Lebanese government and Hezbollah are one and the same and so encourage countries that don't support Iran - the U.S. and Israel - to crack down on Hezbollah there.
SIEGEL: Although when Hariri does say that his life was in danger, it does remind people that his father, who had been Lebanon's prime minister, was in fact assassinated, it's thought, by people supporting Syria and Hezbollah.
SHERLOCK: Well, that's exactly right. Saad Hariri said in his speech that the political climate now reminds him of the climate that was around when his father was killed.
SIEGEL: Well, looking more broadly at the region, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim country, and Shiite Iran have been clashing elsewhere. Has that tension been building lately?
SHERLOCK: Very much so. So Iran is now dominant in the wars in Syria and in Iraq, and it's even countering the Saudis in their war in Yemen. Just this week, the Saudis forced the closure of air and land borders in Yemen because they said that the Iranian-backed militias there had fired a ballistic missile at its capital, Riyadh.
So this move in Lebanon might be the Saudis setting a red line, if they in fact have forced this resignation. At least this is what Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, accused Saudi of doing today in his speech. He said that they were trying to encourage the Israelis to attack Lebanon.
SIEGEL: That would be a very bold move by Saudi Arabia. And there is a new bold figure rising in Saudi Arabia, the crown prince. How might he be driving this?
SHERLOCK: Well, the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman - he's just 32, and he is seen as being much more hawkish than previous rulers. He's seen as being responsible for a lot of the activities in Yemen and for the recent divides happening in the Gulf. And perhaps he feels emboldened by the Trump administration. You know, the White House has been much more outspoken against Iran and has generally backed Saudi's moves here. The U.S. recently slapped new sanctions on Hezbollah.
Having said that, though, the U.S. and France have also invested heavily in keeping Lebanon stable. They've tried to build up the Lebanese army. And in response to this crisis, they've urged for Lebanon not to get dragged into this regional power struggle.
SIEGEL: NPR's Ruth Sherlock in Beirut. Ruth, thanks.
SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.