Hosting Ahmadinejad

Lebanon offered a hero's welcome to the Iranian president on Wednesday. But the outward signs of support don't tell the whole story.

Salah Malkawi/Getty Images
Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

BEIRUT –Lebanon has spent weeks preparing for a very important guest. On street corners throughout Beirut, posters featuring the smiling face of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomed him to the city in both Arabic and Farsi. Those who might have disrupted the feel-good atmosphere were silenced: Lebanese authorities forced a film festival to postpone the showing of a documentary about the protests following Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election campaign until after the president’s visit. The roads linking the airport to the presidential palace and Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut’s southern suburbs are bursting with Iranian flags.

If Ahmadinejad came to Beirut to plant the Iranian flag in Lebanese soil, there was little need: His allies had already done it for him. Still, the Iranian president, who referred to Lebanon as "the focus point of resistance" before departing on his first official state visit to Lebanon, did not miss the opportunity to emphasize the links between the two countries. "The Iranian nation will always stand beside the Lebanese nation and will never abandon them," he said in Lebanon on Oct. 13. "We will surely help the Lebanese nation against animosities, mainly staged by the Zionist regime."

Despite this superficial display of bonhomie, Lebanese citizens are deeply divided over the Iranian president’s visit, which comes at a moment of high tension for the country. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, established to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is increasingly being assailed by those opposed to the investigation; Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah referred to it this summer as an "Israeli project."

With Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik, refusing to disavow the tribunal, Hezbollah is hoping to use Iran’s outspoken support as leverage to undermine the tribunal. Many fear that Hezbollah, which is part of Lebanon’s unity government, will seize on the momentum from Ahmadinejad’s visit to coerce Hariri to give in to its demands. If he refuses, the Party of God could organize street protests designed to topple the government and replace Hariri with a more pliant prime minister.

So the reception for Ahmadinejad was arranged not only because the Lebanese wanted to be good hosts, but as a statement by Hezbollah and its ally, the predominantly Shiite Amal Movement, of their political weight. Hezbollah and Amal lobbied thousands of their supporters to stand for hours on both sides of the airport road to welcome the Iranian president upon his arrival — a show of allegiance to Iran, which supported Hezbollah in its July 2006 war against Israel and helped rebuild towns and villages after the conflict.

"This is a visit from Heaven," said Mohammad, a resident of the southern suburbs. "If it wasn’t for Iran, we couldn’t have achieved our victory in 2006. God bless him. As [Hezbollah leader] Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said earlier, those who are supporting the international tribunal are Israeli and American tools, and Ahmadinejad is coming to tell them that Iran will not allow them to hurt Hezbollah and the resistance."

But not all of the Lebanese Shiite community has been swayed by the manufactured jubilation that welcomed Ahmadinejad. "It is just a visit from a president of a country to another country. Why do we have to make a big deal out of it?" wondered Mohammad’s cousin, Hadi, who lives in the south Lebanon village of Adloun.  

Hadi is a strong supporter of Hezbollah, but did not attend Ahmadinejad’s welcoming ceremony along the airport road. However, he left no doubt that he would certainly attend the evening rally at south Beirut’s al-Raya Stadium. But it was Nasrallah, not Ahmadinejad, of whom he hoped to catch a glimpse. "They say Nasrallah might speak live this time, and I really do not want to miss that," he said.

But beyond the pomp and circumstance, there are bigger plans for Ahmadinejad’s two-day trip, ranging from investments in energy and development to military and humanitarian aid. On Oct. 6, Iranian Energy Minister Majid Namjou met with his Lebanese counterpart, Gebran Bassil, and offered $450 million for investment in electricity and water projects. Tehran has also offered to help build oil refineries and to export gas to Lebanon via a pipeline that would run through Iraq and Syria.

Thirteen other agreements, of varying degrees of plausibility, were also signed on Oct. 13. But many believe that these deals are more political than practical. "It doesn’t matter if the Lebanese accept these offers or not; it is just a message to the West," said Lokman Slim, a Shiite activist who works in the southern suburbs. "These agreements will be used by Hezbollah as a counterbalance against other agreements Lebanon had previously signed with other countries, namely with the West."

Despite Ahmadinejad’s best efforts, however, not all Lebanese are convinced that he has their best interests at heart. Of course, members of the pro-Western "March 14" alliance, which emerged with a slim majority in last year’s parliamentary elections, have been critical of the visit. But even the views of Lebanese Shiites, who should be Ahmadinejad’s natural constituency, are more complicated than generally appreciated. "Ahmadinejad did not come to Lebanon as a guest. He came here as a military leader, to tell the West and the Israelis that Iran is here now," said Hussam, a middle-age man from the south Lebanon city of Nabatieh.

Hussam fought against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in the 1980s, but today he does not see Hezbollah as a resistance movement. "Hezbollah is using the resistance as a tool to serve the Iranian agenda in Lebanon."

These are the voices that the Iranian president will work hard to marginalize when he visits south Lebanon on Oct. 14. While there, he will open a public garden built with Iranian funding and also reportedly visit the Hezbollah strongholds of Qana and Bint Jbeil, where he will deliver a speech.

But beyond the pro- and anti-Iran voices, many Lebanese are simply fearful that Ahmadinejad’s visit will exacerbate divisions in the country and even lead to a renewal of violence with Israel. The statement by an Israeli Knesset member that the Israel Defense Forces should kill Ahmadinejad if he visits the Israeli-Lebanese border is just the sort of threat that worries the many people who are still rebuilding their lives after the ruinous 2006 war. They wonder whether they will ultimately pay the price for Ahmadinejad’s attempt to bolster his political fortunes by asserting Iranian primacy in Lebanon.

Iranian inducements have so far proved sufficient to muster an outwardly impressive public display of support for Ahmadinejad, but the true feelings of the Lebanese are more complicated. "People are not stupid; they know how he suppressed the Green Movement in Iran," said Mona Fayyad, a Lebanese Shiite researcher and writer. "He does not represent a democratic or fair leader for them, no matter how much Iran supported Hezbollah and the resistance." Behind those Iranian flags and posters in Beirut lies no small amount of ambivalence.

Hanin Ghaddar is the Friedmann fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Geduld Program on Arab Politics. Twitter: @haningdr

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