By Tom Perry, Parisa Hafezi and Ghaida Ghantous
BEIRUT/DUBAI (Reuters) - For Saudi Arabia, losses for Iran's allies in a Lebanese general election mark a rare piece of good news from a country where Tehran has long been ascendant, and could play to Riyadh's advantage in a regional tussle for influence.
The loss of a parliamentary majority won by Hezbollah and its allies in 2018 is a reversal for the heavily armed group, a dominant force in Lebanon for years with unwavering support from Shi'ite-led Iran, and may present Sunni Muslim-led Saudi Arabia with new possibilities for reasserting sway in Beirut.
Saudi Arabia had largely washed its hands of Lebanon after spending billions to carve out influence, only to watch Hezbollah's role grow and Iran extend its regional clout via other proxies closer to home, including in Yemen and Iraq.
Amid signs of renewed Saudi interest in Lebanon, analysts believe Riyadh will manoeuvre cautiously rather than dive fully back into a country where Shi'ite Islamist Hezbollah, founded by Iran's Revolutionary Guards, remains Lebanon's most powerful faction, with weapons that outgun the national army.
With its ally Amal, Hezbollah held on to all of parliament's Shi'ite seats. But some of its oldest allies, including Druze and Christian politicians, lost theirs. The result marks a blow for Hezbollah, which declared the 2018 result "a political and moral victory".
Though it forms a minority in the new parliament, Hezbollah's main opponent in Lebanon, the Saudi-aligned, Christian Lebanese Forces party, gained seats. Like-minded Sunni Muslims also won seats.
The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Walid Bukhari said the results showed that the "logic of the state" would always win "against a statelet disrupting political life and stability", a reference to Hezbollah.
With parliament fragmented, the result makes it harder for Hezbollah and its allies to steer a legislative agenda that includes electing a replacement for President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah-allied Christian, later this year.
From a Saudi perspective, the election improved the situation in Lebanon but did not resolve the issue of Hezbollah's dominance, said Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of Riyadh-based Gulf Research Center.
"Saudi Arabia will be cautious and will not jump on the wagon so quickly. They have been burned before," he told Reuters.
Hezbollah's clout in Lebanon has provided a pillar of support to neighbouring Syria, another Iranian ally, and is a source of anxiety to Israel, with which it has fought several wars.
For Lebanon, any re-engagement by Gulf Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, would be of particular importance with the country mired in a ruinous economic collapse that marks its most destabilising crisis since the 1975-90 civil war.
AN IRANIAN PRIORITY
Mohanad Hage Ali of the Carnegie Middle East Center said a quarter or more of the new parliament is strongly anti-Hezbollah and allied to Riyadh. "The large minority within a hung parliament will definitely be impactful," he said.
"It gives Saudi Arabia options. Their allies are in a stronger position than they were in 2018."
Lebanon became a frontline in the tussle between Saudi Arabia and Iran after the 2005 assasination of Rafik al-Hariri, a Sunni politician who symbolised Saudi influence. A U.N.-backed court in 2020 convicted a Hezbollah member of conspiring to kill Hariri. Hezbollah denies any role.
Following the killing, Riyadh backed Hariri's son, Saad, and his allies in confronting Syria and Hezbollah, resulting in armed conflict in 2008 when Hezbollah took over Beirut.
Riyadh gradually turned on Hariri as he made compromises with Hezbollah and its allies, briefly detaining him in Saudi Arabia in 2017 and then cutting him off. Saudi Arabia and Hariri have denied the detention, which has been widely reported.
With Hariri shunned, the Lebanese Forces emerged as a close Saudi ally. Its electoral gains challenge the status of Hezbollah's main Christian ally, Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, as the biggest Christian faction.
Hariri announced in January he was stepping away from politics. With him out of the picture, Sunni seats were split between allies and opponents of Hezbollah, including prominent anti-Hezbollah hawks.
Iran has said it respects the result of Lebanon's election.
An Iranian official told Reuters Hezbollah's major influence in Lebanon meant Iran's allies would not lose their power.
"It is too immature to say that because of this vote, a strong and influential group like Hezbollah will be weakened in Lebanon or Iran’s position will be weakened in the Middle East," the official said.
ECHOES OF IRAQ
The result has prompted comparisons with Iraq, where an election held in October amidst public anger at poverty and corruption produced a poor showing for Iran-backed factions.
Iraq has been mired in political paralysis since then, an outcome many analysts believe is now in store for Lebanon - whose sectarian system mirrors Iraq's - but which Lebanese can ill-afford as hardship mounts.
Sanam Vakil, an analyst at Britain’s Chatham House think-tank, did not believe Iran would be surprised by the result.
"For Tehran though, especially also after a challenging Iraqi election outcome, the bigger problem is how to maintain and assure electoral outcomes" that protect its interests, she said.
This comes at a time when Saudi Arabia and Iran have been holding direct talks in a bid to contain tensions with five rounds of discussions so far hosted by Iraq.
Saudi columnist Tariq Al-Homayed, writing in Asharq Al Awsat newspaper, welcomed the election results in Lebanon and Iraq, but added that "the road is long".
Still, Lebanon did not appear to be a top Saudi priority compared to years gone by, said Nabil Boumonsef, deputy editor-in-chief at Annahar newspaper.
"Without a doubt, we are a priority for Iran."
(Additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)