LEBANON: Maverick Christian leader cozies up to Iran
Against all tides, he had the audacity to band together with Hezbollah in 2005. Now Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun is aiming higher by seeking ties directly with Iran, the staunchest state supporting the Shiite militant group.
The lawmaker, who returned to the country in 2005 after 15 years of exile in Paris, is on a high-profile official visit to Tehran. His trip, which started Sunday, was described by Iranians as “historic” and was an occasion for them to show that they support the Christians of the region.
The bold step has angered many Lebanese who still consider Iran as a major source of instability in their country.
In a joint news conference with Iran’s foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki, Aoun, once a fierce opponent of Iran’s regional ally Syria, praised the Islamic Republic for its help to the Lebanese:
Iran is especially helping Lebanon today in confronting its problems and achieving national unity. ... Iran never helped one Lebanese party against the others.
On his trip to Tehran, Aoun also met with Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was quoted by reporters saying that Iran and Lebanon are going through "similar difficulties that they have to overcome."
Back in Beirut, Aoun’s visit to Tehran provoked the ire of pro-U.S. politicians, who accuse Iran of arming Hezbollah to use Lebanon as a “proxy” nation in its conflict with the West and Israel.
Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, one of Aoun’s main foes, accused Aoun of attempting to thwart "the policy of non-alignment that Lebanon is trying to adopt" with respect to regional disputes.
Jumblatt, in an editorial in his party’s weekly publication which appeared on Monday, described Aoun as the "leader of defeats" and said his visit to Iran was meant to "rekindle divisions” regarding various Lebanese groups ties to certain Arab states. The country's Sunnis are closely allied with Saudi Arabia, which considers Iran a rival.
Fears that Iran's influence is growing in the Arab world is a recurrent concern in the region.
The pro-U.S. Lebanese online publication Now Lebanon lambasted Aoun for seeking Iran’s “friendship.” An opinion article posted on its website on Monday said:
It is no exaggeration to posit that Iran sees Lebanon, through the prism of Hezbollah, as nothing short of a satellite state. ... As a self-described representative of the Christian community in Lebanon, Aoun should be worried about sitting at the same table as those who would hang a man for his religious beliefs. He should choose his friends more carefully.
— Raed Rafei in Beirut
Photo: Lebanon Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, right, greets Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran this week. Photo: Hassan Ghaedi / Fars News Agency
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