LEBANON: Arab media slam Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over visit
As Lebanon braced for the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Beirut on Wednesday, the Arab media outside the country was able to say explicitly what the Lebanese media on both sides of the political divide could not.
Israel's warning that the Iranian leader's trip to southern Lebanon was a "provocation" put Arab commentators on the defensive, citing Lebanon's right as a sovereign nation to host an official visit from the head of a neighboring state.
But many Arabs accuse Iran of undermining Lebanese stability and stoking sectarian tensions by arming the militant Shiite group Hezbollah. Arabian Peninsula countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in particular, have voiced concerns that Iran's nascent nuclear program could tip the regional balance of power.
The local media, bound by internal diplomatic considerations, tended to be more tempered in their approach, while the mostly Saudi-funded pan-Arab outlets largely went straight for the jugular.
"The best description of the meeting between [Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad I heard from a Lebanese figure who hinted to me that it would be 'a meeting between two wanted criminals,'" wrote Tariq al Hamid, writing in the Saudi-funded pan-Arab paper Al Sharq al Awsat.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, considered close to Hezbollah, played up regional support for the visit, leading with news that Ahmadinejad called Saudi King Abdullah before the trip. The paper called Ahmadinejad an "exceptional guest" at an "exceptional moment."
The Saudi-funded pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, on the other hand, ran no less than three very negative articles on Wednesday, accusing Iran of stoking Sunni-Shiite tensions throughout the region by supporting Hezbollah.
In one article titled "Current scenarios of a coup in Lebanon and the factors hindering it," the paper echoed claims by some elements in Lebanon that Hezbollah is plotting a coup to overthrow the Lebanese government with Iran's backing.
But a commenter in Al Quds al Arabi, an prominent Arabic newspaper based in London, not only defended Ahmadinejad's right to visit Lebanon and even the Israeli border but attacked Arab regimes for their stance against Iran, saying more Arab leaders should follow the example of the Iranian president.
"In the past, hostility toward Israel was a passport into the hearts of the Arab people and their governments, regardless of ideological or sectarian considerations," he wrote. "Now it is the exact opposite, which explains the increase in hostility of Arab governments toward the 'Sunni' Hamas movement and the 'Shiite' Hezbollah, and the continuation of the siege strangling the Gaza Strip."
Iranian media, meanwhile, concentrated on the "historic" nature of Ahmadinejad's visit and the Lebanese eagerness to host him.
"Ahmadinejad's visit will create a situation which will be favorable to the resistance and will pave way for strengthening peace and stability in this country and the region also," read an editorial in the hard-line newspaper Al Qods. "This visit will once again prove that Tehran holds an influential and exemplary power in global developments and regional relations."
-- Meris Lutz in Beirut
Photo: Thousands of Lebanese turned out to welcome Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as he arrived in Beirut on Wednesday morning. Credit: Salah Malkawi / Getty Images