x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Ahmadinejad's visit has symbolic worth

The Iranian leader's Lebanon trip is likely to carry meanings that are deeply uncomfortable for the region's moderate camp, headed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's triumphal visit to Lebanon this week highlighted the Middle East's defining ideological clash between the so-called rejectionist and moderate camps, proving the camera-addicted Iranian president to be as divisive abroad as he is at home.

His defiant proclamation on Thursday that the "Zionist regime" would inevitably "disappear" will delight many ordinary people across the region.

He has repeatedly said as much before. But this time his prediction of Israel's demise was more potent - and provocative - for being delivered from a Hizbollah village stronghold within sight of Lebanon's border with Israel, the region's nuclear armed superpower.

As a cherishable souvenir, Hizbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, gifted his Iranian benefactor an Israeli rifle captured during the militant group's war with Israel four years ago.

Most Arab leaders are, however, likely to have been angered by Mr Ahmadinejad's populism and what they regarded as a demonstration of growing Iranian interference in Arab affairs from Iraq to the Mediterranean.

But despite the melodrama and controversy - essential ingredients of the mercurial Iranian president's jaunts abroad - his Levantine excursion was mainly of symbolic importance, many analysts said.

It emphasised "existing political realities" and generated "frenzied, nearly hysterical, reactions on both sides" but was "probably not one of political innovation or substantive change", wrote Rami G Khouri, editor-at-large of Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper.

Yet even the symbolism of Mr Ahmadinejad's visit is deeply uncomfortable for the region's moderate camp, which is headed by Egypt and Saudi Arabia and includes the smaller Gulf Arab states and Jordan.

Those with sizeable Shiite communities, such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Kuwait, regard Iran's regional outreach as destabilising. And all, which enjoy good relations with the United States, are concerned by the Islamic republic's nuclear ambitions.

For them, Mr Ahmadinejad's tumultuous Lebanese visit was proof that a Tehran-led "rejectionist" or "resistance" axis, comprising Iraq, Syria, Hizbollah and Hamas, has designs on regional leadership.

Sensitive to accusations that his trip was divisive, Mr Ahmadinejad proclaimed his commitment to Lebanon's unity at every opportunity.

And, smoothing ruffled feathers on the regional front, he reportedly telephoned Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah - who backs Hizbollah's pro-western Lebanese rivals - on the eve of his visit. Mr Ahmadinejad's critics might say that his rock star's welcome by Lebanon's Shiite community proves he enjoys more popularity on the Arab street than among his own people. His supporters could counter that no western or Arab leader would dare travel in an open-topped vehicle in Lebanon, as the beaming, irrepressible Iranian president did.

Certainly, Mr Ahmadinejad's Lebanese trip was a welcome holiday from his myriad problems on the home front. He revels in the attention he receives on foreign visits, hoping it will boost his legitimacy in Iran, where many question his election victory last year.

Rival Iranian conservatives pose a more significant and immediate challenge than the ferociously repressed reformist movement. Many fellow hardliners are infuriated by Mr Ahmadinejad's attempts to monopolise power, his mishandling of the economy and his aggressive foreign policy: all four sets of UN sanctions over Iran's nuclear programme were imposed on his watch.

While Iran's state television channels gave fawning, saturation coverage to Mr Ahmadinejad's "historic" trip to Lebanon, hailing it as a "victory", he received scant attention from websites affiliated to his influential conservative opponents, such as the Tehran mayor, Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, and the parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani.

Because Mr Ahmadinejad's visit to Lebanon was a state one, few Arab leaders voiced their disquiet. But pan-Arab media, mostly funded by Saudi Arabia, had no such qualms.

Tariq Alhomayed in the Saudi-financed pan-Arab daily, Al Sharq al Awsat, acknowledged that the Iranian president's trip could "intensify the sectarian crisis in Lebanon and the region at large". But he welcomed the visit because it served as a "beneficial shock" for Arab countries to see what Iran was "plotting" against them.

Hizbollah, he added, had lauded a man "who is opposed by half of Iran's population".

On the other side of the divide and for an entirely different reason, Abdelbari Atwan, the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds Al-Arabi, a pan-Arab daily published in London, also welcomed Mr Ahmadinejad's Lebanon trip as "extremely useful".

"It puts pressure on Israel, pressure on the US, and pressure on the Arab moderates, saying to them, 'Look, if you want to confront Ahmadinejad and his ideology, why don't you boost the moderate Arabs by finalising a peace agreement [between the Palestinians and Israel]?'" Mr Atwan said in a telephone interview. Why, he added, did the US not just use its superpower clout to force Israel into halting settlement building on occupied Palestinian land?

Meanwhile, choosing to take Mr Ahmadinejad's words of peace and unity at face value, an editorial in Beirut's Daily Star on Thursday said they hinted at a "shift in political thinking that - if developed further - could herald an era of lasting peace in Lebanon".