WASHINGTON // While opinion in the United States is divided over the exact significance of the visit to Lebanon of Iran's president, its importance is not in dispute. In public, US officials play down the event, characterising it as a sovereign Lebanese issue. But the US, which yesterday urged its citizens in Lebanon to remain vigilant during the high-profile visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be watching.
The official view in Washington is that Iran is a destabilising factor in the Middle East in general, and in Lebanon in particular, especially in view of Iran's strong ties with Hizbollah. The Lebanese Shiite group is part of Lebanon's coalition government, but the United States defines it as a terrorist organisation. Curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions, meanwhile, remains a top US policy objective.
A state visit to Lebanon of an Iranian president therefore constitutes a "public demonstration" of the Islamic republic's influence in the region, said Robert Kaplan, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security, a Washington-based think tank on US national security and defence issues. "That he can travel there and be received as a head of government is a ceremonial demonstration of Iranian influence in Lebanon and how the whole political order there has to acknowledge the geopolitical weight of Iran in the region."
That the United States was unable to prevent the visit, according to Mr Kaplan, is also a sign of continued weakness in US sway in Lebanon. "The US is not powerless to counter Iran's influence in the region. But one thing it can't do is micro-manage Lebanese internal politics." The general assumption is that Iran's influence in the Middle East is negative, pervasive and growing. "We've said many times that Iran's policies in the region increase tension and violence and are antithetical to peace," a State Department official said last week.
But some observers say Iran's regional role has been exaggerated and Hizbollah misunderstood. "Iran becomes important when the US makes mistakes in the region," said Mark Perry, an independent military analyst based in the US capital. He pointed to what he called a long line of such mistakes by the administration under George W Bush as one reason for the perceived growth of Tehran's influence. "Our incompetence undercuts us. But when we are competent, Iran doesn't get that much traction."
US opinions about Iran have to a large degree been shaped in recent years by Mr Ahmadinejad himself, whose public statements are often received by US pundits and the public alike as provocative. Reports indicate that Mr Ahmadinejad may have added to that perception by announcing that during his Lebanon visit he would go to Lebanon's border with Israel and throw stones across, something Mr Kaplan, who characterised Mr Ahmadinejad as "less crazy than many Americans think", dismissed as a public relations stunt.
"Trying to humiliate the US with provocative statements is not helpful," said Mr Perry. He suggested that Mr Ahmadinejad had been built into a bogeyman in the US by people opposed to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process and said US officials also needed to be wary of "inflammatory language. "The US is having difficulties in the region. We need to lower the temperature."