Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday to a
hero's welcome and blaze of fanfare that belied the country's rising
intercommunal tensions and Western misgivings about his visit.
Shouts of "khosh amadi" ("welcome" in Persian) and showers of rice,
sweets and petals greeted the Iranian leader as he waved to crowds from an
open-topped car after arriving in Beirut at the beginning of a two-day trip.
It's Ahmadinejad's first visit to Lebanon, where Iran has cultivated close
relationship with Hezbollah, the Shi'ite Islamist group that fought a bitter
five-week conflict with Israel in 2006. He was expected to address a
Hezbollah-organized rally attended by up
to 60,000 people after meetings with senior Lebanese politicians, including
President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and Nabih Berri, the
Preparation for his arrival had been underway for weeks, with pro-Hezbollah
neighborhoods festooned with posters of Ahmadinejad along with Iran's Supreme
Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader
of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The warmth of the reception contrasted with foreboding expressed by Israel, the
United States and Sunni politicians in Lebanon. More than 200 prominent
Lebanese citizens signed an open letter in advance of the trip asking
Ahmadinejad to avoid using Lebanon as a "spearhead" for confronting Israel.
That move echoes the feelings of many non-Shi'ite politicians in Lebanon's
fragile unity government, who have accused Ahmadinejad of treating their
country as "an Iranian base on the Mediterranean".
Israel - whose demise Ahmadinejad has frequently forecast - has denounced the
visit as a "provocation".
Iranian client state?
Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Tel
Aviv, said the Iranian president's arrival marks a milestone in a Hezbollah
takeover of Lebanon aimed at turning it into an Iranian client state.
"The important issue is that we see another step in the 'Hezbollah-ization' of
Lebanon,'' Inbar said. "Lebanon is further losing its independence and
Hezbollah is taking over, with Ahmadinejad encouraging these forces and
signaling to the whole Middle East that Lebanon is becoming an Iranian
At a news conference with Suleiman, Ahmadinejad rejected charges of Iranian
intervention in Lebanon's affairs: "We believe that the Lebanese people and
also the people of the region are capable of conducting their own affairs on
their own and to conduct the relationships with each other on the basis of
justice and respect,'' Ahmadinejad said.
"Our region does not need the interference of regional or outside powers. We
agreed with his excellency the president to intensify our calls and meetings
and to exchange our experiences in order to reach the maximum of our capability
and success and to support each other."
But that anodyne description will be challenged on October 14 when the
president visits southern Lebanon, where he is expected to address a rally in
the town of Bint Jbeil, exalted to mythical status by Hezbollah because it was
heavily bombed in the 2006 conflict with Israel. There have also been
suggestions that Ahmadinejad will travel to the Lebanese-Israeli frontier and
court yet more controversy by throwing highly symbolic stones into Israel.
Stirring the pot
According to Hilal Khashan, a Lebanese political scientist, Ahmadinejad's visit
is a projection of Iranian regional power.
''He is coming for his own Iranian reasons," Khashan said. "He wants to show
the world that Iran is a regional power, and that Iran is a confrontation state
with Israel. The fact that he will be visiting Bint Jbeil in the south, which
Hezbollah calls the capital of liberation, means a lot to him. First he wants
to convey to his people that Iran is preponderant. He wants to show that Iran
is a major power player that must be treated with respect and understanding,
and must be engaged instead of confrontation.''
Inbar said Israel sees Iran's backing for Hezbollah as a threat to its security
which has the potential to lead to further conflict.
"It definitely provides a challenge to Israel's security as Lebanon, Syria, and
Hamas-ruled Gaza are actually serving Iranian interests and all of them have
threatening capabilities for Israel's civilian population," Inbar said. "We
don't want to provoke a war, but this is something that we have to take into
consideration if some kind of violent contingencies are developing in the
Ahmadinejad's arrival also comes against a backdrop of rising sectarian
tensions between Sunni and Shi'ite factions in Lebanese domestic politics. A
United Nations-backed court is expected shortly to implicate Hezbollah figures
in the 2005 killing of Sunni prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, father of the
Hezbollah has already dismissed the UN investigation as "politicized". But
suggestions of its involvement have raised fears of a resumption of
intercommunal strife 20 years after the end of a civil war that tore Lebanon
apart and increased the suspicion many Sunni and Christian Lebanese feel about
That sentiment was summed up by one man, named as Georges, who told
Agence-France Presse: "This is no longer our country. This country is for
[Hezbollah] and Iran now, and God knows [Hezbollah] is cooking up for us after
But Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah - who was expected to address
Ahmadinejad's Beirut rally by video link - insists that Lebanese of all
persuasions owe a debt to Iran.
''The country that stood by Lebanon during the worst of times, during the worst
of wars and the worst fallout from a war that Lebanon has ever had, how should
we treat it in return?" he asked. "Even when we differ amongst ourselves
politically, we should be thankful to this country and respectful to it.''