LEBANON, IRAN: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit neither routine nor ruinous
Now that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has concluded his controversial two-day tour of Lebanon and returned home without provoking a war with Israel, the real question is what, if anything, has changed?
Both Iran's ally in Lebanon, the militant Shiite group Hezbollah, and the Lebanese government tried to cast Ahmadinejad's stay as a routine visit from a neighboring head of state, an assertion that was somewhat at odds with the hero's welcome the Iranian leader received from the party and its supporters.
"I don't think this was a routine visit at all," said political analyst Kamel Wazne, founder of the Beirut-based Center of American Strategic Studies. "The Shia and Hezbollah came out in force to make sure that those who still doubted now know that Ahmadinejad has support and that he is welcome in large parts of the country."
Iran, said Wazne, was able to send a strong message to Israel that it has powerful friends within striking distance of the Jewish state should Israel launch an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Ultimately, Wazne does not believe Ahmadinejad's visit will shift the balance of power, despite winning some begrudging recognition of Iranian might from the U.S.-and-Saudi-backed March 14 coalition, led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who also honored the Iranian president at a luncheon on Thursday.
"I think to a certain extent he was able to win the respect but not the heart of March 14," Wazne said. "The real conflicts that existed before [Ahmadinejad's visit] will exist after."
Ahmadinejad's visit was heavily covered in the official Iranian press as a historic event proving the president's popularity and political influence abroad.
Hardliner cleric Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, quoted in the Iranian media, saluted Ahmadinejad's "bravery" for standing so close to the Israeli border and praised the popular welcome the president received in Lebanon.
"The welcome was showing the unity of people," he said. "Ahmadinejad is the symbol of the Islamic republic of Iran.... It is obvious that the United States and Israel are very furious due to this trip."
But Ahmadinejad's visit did not carry the same oomph for Iranians as for the Lebanese. Iranians are wary and somewhat bored with their president's international shenanigans, and his return has been overshadowed by the match between arch-rival Tehran soccer powerhouses Persepolis and Esteghlal.
During his visit to Lebanon, Ahmadinejad met with Lebanese officials from both sides of the political divide. He reiterated his offer to supply the Lebanese Army with weapons. He also reportedly signed $450 million in contracts spanning oil and gas imports and exploration, tourism, education, health and finance.
All of this could be considered routine politicking. But unlike other heads of state who visit Lebanon, Ahmadinejad also gave two speeches addressed mainly to Hezbollah supporters, one from the heart of Hezbollah's security square in Beirut's southern suburbs and the other from the southern Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, which Iran helped rebuild after it was destroyed in the July 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.
The attitude of Hezbollah's political rivals was perhaps summed up best by Lebanese Forces official Antoine Zahra, who told Aljazeera.net that he considered the Iranian president's visit "an official visit to the Lebanese state upon invitation by the president of the Lebanese Republic."
"However," he added, "Ahmadinejad's second official visit to the state of Hezbollah does not concern us."
In a highly organized show of support, thousands of Lebanese from rebuilt villages in the south turned out to welcome the Iranian president, who delivered a speech less than a mile from the Israeli border in which he promised that "the Zionists will go."
The speech was undoubtedly a huge hit among Ahmadinejad's fans and Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon, who are not a small minority and include a significant chunk of the nation's Christians.
In the eyes of much of the Lebanese population, Iran stood by Lebanon during a crucial time in the July war while Lebanon's Western allies did not pressure Israel to stop its bombing campaign until the number of civilian casualties passed 1,000.
Others were more cynical in their reading of Iranian intentions. The pan-Arab press slammed Ahmadinejad over the visit, accusing him of stoking sectarian tensions in the region and undermining Lebanon's stability.
"Here was a man checking on his investment, and his speech was nothing short of a rallying to arms for the decades-old struggle with Israel and an unashamed show of support for his allies in Hezbollah," read an editorial on the March 14 news website Now Lebanon.
"Ahmadinejad’s speech was also an endorsement of the strategic path taken by Hezbollah and proof that his words of support for the Lebanese state were nothing but hot air."
Top photo: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is welcomed by his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Sleiman. Bottom, Ahmadinejad is welcomed by crowds of Hezbollah supporters as he arrived in Lebanon. Credit: IRNA