Ahmedinejad arrived in Beirut on October 13, 2010 for a two-day visit, after he had been invited by Lebanese President Michel Sleiman. He was welcomed by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Foreign Minister Ali Shami, Sports and Youth Minister Ali Abdallah, Minister of State for Administrative Development Mohammad Fneish and an array of MPs, military figures and state officials. Berri received the Iranian President with the following words: ‘Prior to the landing of your plane, I said this visit is very important with respect to friends, but it gained more importance thanks to our enemies, for the enemy sometimes serves more than the friend. [...]. Thank God for your safety. Lebanon, all Lebanon, and especially the South is longing to see you.’ Ahmedinejad replied that he ‘felt proud to be among his brothers.’ 1
Giant pictures of Ahmedinejad, Ayatollah Khomeini and Khamenei were seen throughout Beirut and a cheering crowd in a sea of red, green and yellow Iranian, Hizbullah and Amal flags was showering the President with rose petals and rice. Especially, Hizbullah prompted its supporters to give the guest a warm welcome whereas the streets had been ready a week before his visit. The reception was a success and Ahmedinejad waved to the crowds from the sunroof of his SUV, being surrounded by tight security.
Following his impressive arrival, Ahmedinejad’s ‘challenging’ schedule - which might explain why he did not visit any of the several Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon – started: firstly, with a meeting between him and President Sleiman. Then, the two Presidents met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Lebanese and Iranian delegations resulting in the signing of 17 documents on bilateral cooperation, consolidating the Lebanese-Iranian economic partnership on issues such as energy, gas and oil policy, commerce, agriculture, and joint investments 2. In the subsequent news conference Sleiman thanked Iran for ‘always standing beside Lebanon in the face of Israeli aggressions and threats’ and referred to the various signed agreements. Both leaders emphasized the Arabs’ right to reclaim all occupied Arab territories and rejected the ‘naturalization of the Palestinians’. Meanwhile, the Iranian President stated that ‘we want a united Lebanon, developed and strong, we will continue to stand beside the Lebanese government and people to achieve its goal. We believe that the Lebanese people and all people of the region can handle their matters by themselves on the basis of justice, and they are not in need of the interference of regional and international forces.’ 3
On Thursday, October 14, 2010 Ahmedinejad met with Prime Minister Saad Hariri at the Grand Serail, where they held closed-door talks and also addressed the ongoing controversy over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is investigating ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination on February 14, 2005. The Tribunal has been investigating the case for 5 years now and is ready to release its interim conclusions while it is said that Hizbullah officials, including senior ones, will be associated with the former Prime Minister’s murder. Iran and Hizbullah do not recognize the tribunal and condemn it as an Israeli project. Hence, there is a standoff between Hizbullah and Hariri over the accusal to be announced by the UN-backed court. However, according to sources, Hariri denied that Ahmedinejad proposed a political initiative regarding the STL, stressing that the bilateral talks focused on the importance of maintaining stability in Lebanon. Moreover, the Prime Minister told his Iranian guest that the Lebanese coexistence formula prevents Lebanon from joining the ‘resistance axis’ and that ‘confronting Israel requires high-level economic capabilities’.
In addition, Ahmedinejad paid a visit to Beirut’s southern suburbs, i. e. the Dahiya quarter which is one of Hizbullah’s strongholds and further held a lecture at the Lebanese University where he was awarded an honorary doctorate.
Also on his second day, he visited the South, in particular Bint Jbeil and Qana. The former is known as the capital of liberation and resistance following the Lebanon War in 2006; the locals also refer to it as Lebanon’s Stalingrad due to the intensity of Israel’s attack. Furthermore, it is where Hizbullah’s Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah delivered a victory speech when Israel put an end to its occupation of Southern Lebanon (1982-2000). Thus, on Thursday tens of thousand of people waited for ‘Nejad’, the man whose country has paid for the rebuilding of houses, office blocks and shattered streets and has also built a fun park which includes a scale replica of Jerusalem’s Golden doomed Al Aqsa mosque. ‘Nejad will come because we are both Lebanese and Iranian; these two make a combination for the resistance,’ said Hussein, a 50-year old shop owner.4 He also added, ‘they can say what they want but Ahmedinejad has come to Lebanon and he and us are one. If America doesn’t like it, that’s tough for them. Iran and Lebanon are staying together.’
The highly praised guest delivered a 15 minute speech where he stated amongst other things that the Iranian people would support the inhabitants of Bint Jbeil forever as they were like the ‘unmovable mountain’. Needless to say that he also taunted Israel by saying things such as ‘the world should know that the Zionists will perish’. However, Nasrallah, who appeared through video link, was the real star of the spectacle. He nurtured the jubilating masses by trying his new approach of describing Iran as the biggest source of solidarity in the Islamic world and therefore its foreign policy as ‘unifying’. This change in rhetoric is important as it underlines Hizbullah’s increased self-confidence and influence in Lebanon and furthermore Iran’s wish to be perceived as a regional power that serves as a unifying bridge in the region. Later on that day, he also met with Ahmedinejad at Iran’s embassy in Beirut in order to give him a unique gift: an Israeli assault rifle, placed in a felt-lined box with a row of bullets, allegedly captured during Hizbullah’s 2006 war with Israel.
Those messages of defiance were more than welcome by the people of Bint Jbeil for whom it was just normal to pay their respect to a man who supported them more than the Lebanese state after the 2006 war. However, exactly the visit to southern Lebanon was considered to be the problem. According to some March 14 hawks it was a ‘provocation’; the same term was also used by the US and Israel in order to characterize Ahmedinejad’s visit. Samir Geagea, the leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces party, and a strong opponent of Hizbullah told BBC that Mr. Ahmedinejad would be welcome if he behaved like the president of Iran, but not ‘if he behaves like a President of part of Lebanon’.5 250 Lebanese politicians, lawyers and activists published an open letter before the Iranian President’s visit accusing Iran of meddling too much in Lebanese politics and Ahmedinejad of perceiving himself as ‘a high commander’ visiting ‘his frontline.’
The Americans on the other hand were even lobbying against Ahmedinejad’s trip whereas Israel stated that the Iranian President’s visit ‘illustrates how Lebanon has turned into an Iranian satellite nation, thus joining the axis of radical countries which oppose the peace process and support terror.’ 6 Israel cannot cope with the fact that it is unable to defeat Hizbullah or at least weaken it, which leads to a constant boost to the organization’s (self-)image. Hence, Israel opposes and fears Iran since in case of a pre-emptive attack against the latter’s nuclear facilities - in order to prevent it from becoming a nuclear power which might emerge as a regional hegemon – Iran will use Hizbullah to jeopardize Israel’s existence. This shows Iran’s leverage in Lebanon through Hizbullah and makes clear why Ahmedinejad’s presence in Southern Lebanon is considered as something provocative by Israel and its long-time ally the US.
Thus, it has become obvious that Ahmedinejad’s visit has to be analyzed from different perspectives as it addresses some of the most tenuous issues of the Middle Eastern landscape and raises both fears and hopes in the various camps.
First of all, the long-time alliance between Iran and Hizbullah frigthens many Lebanese since they fear a rising Shiitization due to the latter’s increase in power. On the other hand, they perceive Ahmedinejad’s visit as a consolidation of Lebanon’s predicament of being a proxy nation. Whereas Hizbullah’s self-perception of being a resistance movement that fights against Israel, nurtures the notion of Lebanon as a long-lasting battleground.
Inextricably linked to this is the aforementioned March 14 reaction and the Sunni leaders' concerns in general about Iran’s growing influence in the region. In other words, Ahmedinejad’s visit brought back haunting images of the so-called Shi’a Crescent. An image that is associated with disastrous alerts of an increasing Iranian hegemony, especially since the fall of the Baathist regime in Iraq, making the latter the very first Shi’a Arab country. Hence, both groups cannot see the visit in the realm of institutional state-to-state cooperation but see it as an indication of Iran’s desire to emphasize its long-lasting interest in controlling Lebanese politics. According to both groups Iran pretended to be ‘merely’ visiting Lebanon to enhance the ‘good diplomatic relations’ between the two countries. In reality, it tried to expand its influence upon the Lebanese state. Tehran offered to supply and train the Lebanese armed forces, pledged its unconditional support for Hizbullah and above all visited the country only weeks before the release of the findings of the STL. According to ‘rumors’ and, after Saad Hariri’s stunning U-turn that he had been wrong to have originally accused Syria of his father murder, the party of God, Hizbullah, is implicated in Rafik Hariri’s murder. All these aspects are seen as evidence of Iran’s plan to co-opt and manipulate the Lebanese state whereas the Tribunal seems to be of enormous significance here.
Precisely, an official accusation of Hizbullah regarding Hariri’s assassination would have enormous repercussions for the movements popularity and legitimacy and could lead to a new wave of clashes between the March 8, the opposition in Lebanon which is considered to be pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian, and the March 14 Alliance. Furthermore, it could culminate in the collapse of the national unity government and Hariri’s final resignation. Thus, it seems that Iran wants this visit to be interpreted as a warning to the March 14 alliance to refrain from connecting Hizbullah to the Hariri murder while implying the dissolution of the tribunal.
However, dissolving the Tribunal to fulfill Iran’s wish would be extremely destabilizing for Lebanon too, as it would only further divide political parties and also undermine Syria and Saudi Arabia’s efforts to de-escalate the tension on this matter. The two players have proclaimed themselves as the ‘mediators’ of this issue and would definitely not appreciate any kind of Iranian meddling.
And exactly this last point alludes to the probably most ‘interesting’ fear represented by this visit: Iran’s worry that its influence in Lebanon is in decline as its ally and apparently at the same time rival Syria is officially back on the political scene in Lebanon. However, it seems as if the Saudis are attempting to lure Syria from Iranian influence. Thus, Tehran aimed at interpreting its visit as a ‘sign of the imminent accession of Lebanon into the resistance axis’7 defusing any suspicion that Iran is loosing ground.
And certainly it seems as if we are witnessing a new power structure, a new regional reality with the so-called alternative or resistance axis - some argue that it incorporates merely Iran and Syria while others argue that it also includes Turkey and Iraq - expanding its ascendancy. Particularly, Iran is becoming a pre-eminent player as it is involved in Iraq and Afghanistan and in spite of being 2,000 kilometers away it is able to project its power against Israel via Hizbullah. Precisely, the latter has shown to be the main ‘success story’ in the Muslim world when it comes to fighting Israel while Israel itself has admitted that. This has also led to the U-turn in Saad Hariri’s stance towards Iran and Syria since being Prime Minster of Lebanon means that if you want to manage this country you have to reconcile with Syria which also means that you have to reconcile with Iran; whether you like it or not.
Thus, Ahmedinejad was able to meet with the whole spectrum of Lebanese politicians and enjoyed an impressive reception upon his arrival. The visit developed more into a state-to-state visit instead of a Shi’a-to-Shi’a visit and enabled Tehran to convey the message that the resistance axis is growing, implying Lebanon’s interest to join and hence boost the idea that if you join the resistance you will be successful.
Nevertheless, this is just the one side of the coin as others argue that there is a ‘hidden’ competition between Iran and Syria epitomized by Ahmedinejad’s visit to Lebanon. In particular, Syria is worried that an increasing Iranian influence in Lebanon could interfere with its plan to reassert control over the country. Iran, on the other hand, has become suspicious of Syria as it has been ‘cozying up’ with Saudi Arabia and supporting competing groups such as the Amal Movement and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, al-Ahbash. Therefore, Assad and Saudi King Abdullah’s visit to Lebanon on July 30, 2010 in a bid to ease tensions over the STL was perceived as a signal to Iran and Hizbullah that Syria has several options to choose from8 and is willing to eliminate and capable of removing any obstacles which challenge its authority in Lebanon. Syria deliberately exposed its possibilities.
And this is where Hizbullah comes in: Syria wants to keep the group under its control by keeping it prone to Syrian intelligence. Hizbullah is a ‘useful proxy’ and ‘potential bargaining chip’ in negotiations with Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel and hence it has to be under tight Syrian control. However, Iran is eager to consolidate its position in Lebanon and depends on Hizbullah as a powerful ‘proxy force’ to prevent a possible US or Israeli attack against Iran. Hence, it continuously increases the number of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Lebanon. Moreover, Syria and Iran are not only at odds when it comes to Lebanon but also when it comes to Syria’s flirtation with Saudi Arabia and the US. Hence, both groups have been busy with cajoling the group out of each other’s arms and the stronger one of them becomes in Lebanon, the more likely it will express its anger about the other ones overstaying in the Lebanese country.
In sum, despite of Ahmedinejad’s friendly and conciliatory tone during his alleged state visit to Lebanon it has become clear that various ‘talented divas’ are pulling the strings inside the Lebanese country. Thus, Ahmedinejad’s visit ‘merely’ shows once again that Lebanon is still a battleground for foreign forces and that national unity is still a dream that has been deferred. And what remains are hope and the wish that the long-suffering Lebanese people will not be witnessing another round of violence under the auspice of their external masters.
NOTES“Ahmedinejad ‘proud’ to be among brothers as he arrives in Beirut”, last modified October 31, 2010, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=2&article_id=120366#axzz12Xmhwsk0 “Ahmedinejad in Beirut: Reasserting the Islamic Republic’s Influence in Lebanon”, last modified November 1, 2010, http://www.inss.org.il/publications.php?cat=21&incat=&read=4494 “Ahmedinejad ‚proud’ to be among brothers as he arrives in Beirut“. ”Southern Lebanese give hero’s welcome to ‘Nejad’”, last modified November 1, 2010, http://www.dailystar.com.lb/article.asp?edition_id=1&categ_id=2&article_id=120413#axzz12Xmf2qvB “Ahmedinejad in Lebanon: Domestic and regional tensions”, last modified November 1, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-11524099 ”Ahmedinejad: Lebanon a school of Jihad”, last modified November 1, 2010, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3969113,00.html “Ahmedinejad in Beirut: Reasserting the Islamic Republic’s Influence in Lebanon“. “Syria, Hezbollah and Iran: An Alliance in Flux“, last modified November 3, 2010, http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20101013_syria_hezbollah_iran_alliance_flux/?utm_source=Snapshot&utm_campaign=none&utm_medium=email&fn=767182769
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