x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Grandstanding in Lebanon will not benefit Iran

The Iranian president would do well to keep his usual flamboyant style at home as he tours Lebanon for the sake of political balance.

It remains to be seen how much of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's characteristic bombast will be on display as he tours Lebanon today. The politician makes his first visit to the country at a time when its fractious political landscape has caused many to question if the Iranian president is there to support Lebanon's tenuous sovereignty or assert Tehran's hand in its affairs. Politics aside, what is certain about the visit is that no gimmick - including the proposal to hurl stones at the Israeli border in the Hizbollah-controlled southern region - will generate enough smoke and mirrors to mask Iran's own economic turmoil.

Amid sanctions that have seen foreign energy companies pull out of Iran's petroleum industry and damage its trade sector, the government is grappling with how best to implement a controversial cut in oil subsidies. If done correctly, Iran stands to gain billions of dollars in revenue as it sells long-undervalued crude at world market prices. If handled clumsily, as many analysts suspect will happen, the explosion in price has the potential to shock the economy and anger many Iranians, most of whom view cheap energy as their birthright.

Add to this problem the worries of Iran's devaluing currency, unrest at tax hikes and high unemployment, as well as a thriving black market, and there is little wonder that the president, elected on a populist ticket to help the poor and fight corruption, is striving to revitalise his image as a man of the people abroad. If he manages to resist the usual histrionics that accompany his international tours - recent remarks about September 11 at the United Nations come to mind - Mr Ahmadinejad may pull this visit off with a measure of grace and credibility. Iran's $450 million commitment to Lebanon's water and energy sector deserves no less, particularly as the announcement precedes an official tour with Lebanese, and not Hizbollah officials.

But should Mr Ahmadinejad find the temptation to make headlines irresistible, he risks turning an official visit into a soapbox for divisive rhetoric. At this critical juncture of the Special Tribunal and Lebanon's delicate political balance, it is a moment for statesmanship, not showboating.