Analysis: Ahmadinejad to issue warning in Lebanon

Beyond providing the Iranian president with a venue where he can speak without being heckled, he is coming to Lebanon to deliver a warning.

Ahmadinejad NY press conf 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Ahmadinejad NY press conf 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Preparations are complete for the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon. Iranian flags and portraits of the distinguished visitor have been placed along the road from Rafik Hariri International Airport to Beirut. A soccer stadium in the southern suburbs of the Lebanese capital is ready to receive the thronging mass of Shia Lebanese well-wishers who will greet the Iranian president. In Bint Jbail, a large replica of the Aksa Mosque in Jerusalem has been constructed, with an Iranian flag atop it.
The speeches Ahmadinejad will give in Beirut and in Bint Jbail will no doubt contain the requisite exhortations to “resistance” and blood sacrifice. There will be much trumpeting of the “divine victory” of 2006 and tribute to the “martyrs.”
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But the trip’s purpose is not merely ceremonial. Beyond providing Ahmadinejad with a venue where he can speak without being heckled – a luxury not so easily available to him in his own country anymore – the Iranian president is coming to Lebanon to deliver a warning.
As Fares Soueid of the Lebanese March 14 alliance put it, “The message is that Iran is at the border with Israel... Ahmadinejad, through this visit, is saying that Beirut is under Iranian influence and that Lebanon is an Iranian base on the Mediterranean... The Iranian president is here to say that Lebanon is a land of resistance and to reaffirm his project of a continuous war with Israel.”
With regard to Israel, this merely confirms an existing reality. The border has been in a state of heightened tension since the killing of an IDF lieutenant-colonel by a Lebanese army sniper two months ago.
The area has played host to furious Iranian-financed civil and military construction over the last four years. This has taken place under the noses and with the tacit acquiescence of both the Lebanese Armed Forces and UNIFIL.
Ahmadinejad’s visit will showcase and confirm this. It may even have the effect of briefly focusing rare media attention on it. But beyond this, for Israel the trip consists, as one newspaper put it, of a largely “symbolic visit” by the “man who calls the shots” in south Lebanon.
Ahmadinejad’s arrival is of greater significance, however, with regard to the very tense internal Lebanese situation.
The UN-backed special tribunal investigating the murder of former prime minister Rafik Hariri is rumored to be preparing to issue indictments against Hizbullah members for involvement in the killing. There are real fears that this could ignite renewed political violence in Lebanon.
Nawwaf al-Moussawi, a Hizbullah MP in the Lebanese parliament, recently warned that any Lebanese who accepts the international tribunal’s indictment findings would be killed as a “collaborator” with Israel and the US.
The Ahmadinejad visit is a show of support for Hizbullah from its Iranian patron, in the buildup to possible renewed internal strife.
Iranian security personnel are currently present in Lebanon, and are working in cooperation with Hizbullah.
There have been suggestions that the visit could herald the beginning of an attempt by Hizbullah to seize control of Lebanon. Hizbullah has, in its own inimitable way, sought to simultaneously calm these fears and remind its opponents of their helplessness. The group’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, said recently that if Hizbullah had wished to take over the country, it could have done so in 2005 or 2006, but that it had no such desire.
The reports of an upcoming coup are probably overblown. But Ahmadinejad’s appearance on the scene will exacerbate fears. This is undoubtedly what the Iranian president wants. The charged atmosphere around his visit will serve as an ominous warning to opponents of the local Iranian franchise, at a particularly tense time.
The casting of Iran as the sponsor of “resistance” is a core part of Ahmadinejad’s regional strategy. Financing, arming and maintaining the two remaining active fronts of the Israeli-Arab conflict (the Hamas enclave in Gaza being the second) despite Iran’s non-Arab and non-Sunni nature is a key part of Teheran’s bid for regional leadership.
The Islamist regime in Teheran is today rocked by sanctions and internal dissent. But the regime will be determined to allow nothing as nebulous as international law to interfere with the franchise on the Mediterranean in which it has invested so much.
So Ahmadinejad is in Lebanon as a reminder of who really dominates that country – in possible anticipation of a further, more direct reminder if and when the Hariri Tribunal issues indictments.