BEIRUT // Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Lebanon this morning for a controversial state visit, stepping off the plane at Rafiq Hariri International Airport in Beirut just past 9 am local time.
Lebanon’s speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, met the Iranian president on the tarmac and together they walked a receiving line of various dignitaries from Lebanon’s pro-Iranian political opposition, Shiite religious figures and top military officials.
The event was covered live by the Iranian-supported Shiite militant group Hizbollah’s television news channel, al-Manar, which greeted Mr Ahmadinejad’s arrival not with the Iranian national anthem, but rather a martial song dedicated to Iran’s strong support for Hizbollah’s militant activities and their joint alliance in the fight against Israel.
With Lebanon facing a profound political crisis over tensions between the Shiite and Sunni communities stemming from the 2005 assassination of former premier Rafiq Hariri, many Lebanese and international observers are concerned that the firebrand president will use the visit as an opportunity to further inflame the situation in support of his allies.
But despite assurances that this state visit would be merely a typical diplomatic meeting with a friendly head of state, Mr Ahmadinejad had been on the ground only a few minutes before a major change was announced to his itinerary. Instead of preceding directly the Lebanon’s presidential palace just outside Beirut to be greeted officially by President Michel Sleiman, al Manar announced that at Mr Ahmadinejad’s insistence, he would first stop at the nearby Palestinian refugee camp of Bourj al Barajne to meet with Palestinian officials.
If this move was perceived in Lebanon as a snub of its president – as the presence of more than 250,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon remains a contentious and occasionally violent issue for the Lebanese – it did not seem to affect thousands of Mr Ahmadinejad’s supporters who have lined the highways around the airport for kilometers, waving Iranian and Hizbollah flags, to greet the man that many consider the top supporter – both politically and financially – of military resistance to Israel.