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Lebanese leader defends Iran ties after Saudi visit

Posted January 11

— Lebanese President Michel Aoun said after a visit to Saudi Arabia that his country's close ties to the kingdom's archrival Iran should not impede relations with the wider Arab world.

"We have normal relations with Iran," which "shouldn't be a barrier in the face of normal relations with the Arab world," Aoun said in remarks published by the pan-Arab and Saudi-run Asharq al-Awsat newspaper on Wednesday.

Iran is a longtime supporter of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which represents much of Lebanon's Shiite community and has a military capability rivaling that of the army and police. Aoun, whose Christian party is allied with Hezbollah, said Iran's support for the group "could continue indefinitely."

Saudi Arabia halted a $3 billion arms deal with Lebanon in February and banned Saudis and other Gulf nationals from traveling there after what the Saudis described as Beirut's failure to condemn attacks on Saudi missions in Iran by demonstrators angered by the kingdom's execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. Weeks later, Lebanon abstained from an Arab League vote branding Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Hezbollah is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad's forces in Syria, while Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries support the rebels.

Aoun said he discussed the arms deal with Saudi officials, without elaborating. The former general also said that "the decision about the return of the tourists has been taken."

Saudi officials told The Associated Press that the Saudi king has promised to review the restoration of the aid package to the Lebanese army but without giving a timetable.

They also said that the king has assured Aoun that he will give instructions to the powerful Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman to "give attention to the issue."

A senior Lebanese official told the Associated Press that Saudis have conditions to unblock the military aid to Lebanon, including assurances that such assistance won't end up in the hands any Lebanese parties — a reference to Hezbollah, which the Saudis view as a terrorist organization.

All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the press.

Aoun flew from Saudi Arabia to Qatar on Wednesday, said QNA, the official Qatari news agency.

Aoun was elected in October after a 29-month vacuum in the country's top post. Lebanon's political factions are deeply divided, with some, like Aoun's party and Hezbollah, aligning with Iran, and their opponents siding with Saudi Arabia.

In December, the parliament approved a national unity government headed by Lebanon's top Saudi ally, Saad Hariri. He endorsed Aoun, ending the deadlock.

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