x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Ahmadinejad visits Lebanon amid tension

The Iranian president is expected to receive a tumultuous welcome as the country braces for reaction to charges against Hizbollah members.

A man works in front of a poster of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during preparations for his visit to Lebanon.
A man works in front of a poster of the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during preparations for his visit to Lebanon.

BEIRUT // Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, arrives here today as his Shiite Lebanese allies press their campaign to discredit a United Nations tribunal investigating the murder of a former prime minister. 

Hizbollah and its political supporters are demanding an investigation of witnesses who gave testimony to the tribunal probing the 2005 murder of Rafik Hariri. The timing of the demand was not coincidental.

Many Lebanese predict that the special court, based in The Hague, will soon hand down indictments against some Hizbollah members and their Syrian supporters, charging them with involvement in the assassination. There are widespread concerns that such indictments could lead to violence between the Hizbollah and the mainly Sunni allies of Hariri's son, the current prime minister, Saad Hariri. Mr Ahmadinejad, who is expected to receive a tumultuous welcome from hundreds of thousands of Hizbollah supporters, has drawn criticism from the international community for travelling to Lebanon amid the bitter feuding over Lebanon's continued support for the court, formally known as the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Late yesterday, the Lebanese cabinet was expected to debate whether to authorise an investigation of tribunal witnesses who Hizbollah claims gave perjured testimony. Political opponents of Mr Hariri are demanding that Lebanon's judicial authorities investigate the credibility of the witnesses before the tribunal issues any indictments. Like other critics of the tribunal, they say some witnesses lied to incriminate Syria and its Shiite allies in Lebanon.

However, as an independent body sanctioned by the UN, the tribunal is under no obligation to comply with any government demands about how it should do its work. At the cabinet meeting, Lebanon's justice minister, Ibrahim Najjar, an ally of Mr Hariri, was expected to propose how the government should investigate witnesses who are alleged to have lied to investigators. Mr Hariri's opponents were expected to reject Mr Najjar's proposal, though the cabinet majority, which has characterised complaints about the investigation as a desperate attempt to tarnish the credibility of the tribunal, was believed to favour it.

Oqab Saqr, a member of parliament, accused Hizbollah on Monday of fabricating false witnesses to "destroy" the supporters of the tribunal, including Mr Hariri's government. Hizbollah's arsenal, which is separate from that of the national army, makes it Lebanon's strongest armed force - a fact that has drawn new concerns in recent weeks as the political crisis here deepens. The administration of Barak Obama, the US president, has come out against Mr Ahmadinejad's trip. Last week, the US State Department spokesman, PJ Crowley, said Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, raised concerns about the visit with the Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman.

"We expressed our concern about it given that Iran, through its association with groups like Hizbollah, is actively undermining Lebanon's sovereignty," Mr Crowley said in Washington. Washington is at odds with Iran over its nuclear programme, which it fears is aimed at making weapons, and with a military buildup by Tehran that it believes threatens the United States' Arab allies in the region as well as Israel. Iran says its nuclear activity is only for producing energy.

Meanwhile, the Lebanese army arrested nine people it said have spied for Israel's intelligence agency, Mossad. "The Intelligence Directorate was able to uncover and arrest during the last two months nine agents whose dealings with the Israeli Mossad were confirmed," the army said yesterday in a statement on its website. "Investigations with four of these agents were completed and they were referred to the relevant judicial authorities."

The other five suspects are still under investigation, the army said. Lebanon's foreign ministry has also filed a formal complaint with the UN about alleged Israeli spying in Lebanon, Major Gen Ashraf Reefi, the head of Lebanon's internal security forces, said in an interview yesterday. Lebanon has no diplomatic relations with Israel and is technically at war with its neighbour. Besides the nine arrests announced by the army today, the country's security forces say they have broken up 23 cells and arrested about 141 people in the past two years on spying charges.

Security in Beirut is “the highest Lebanon has ever seen” in anticipation of the controversial visit and poor sectarian relations, according to an official in Hizbollah’s military wing.

With many Lebanese Sunnis and Christians considering the Iranian president responsible for the military and political power of Hizbollah, resentment of the trip runs high in many circles. Hizbollah, the Iranian government and the Lebanese military have coordinated on a security plan that led to virtually all traffic within kilometres of the airport being halted in anticipation of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s movements.

According to the security official, the Lebanese army and police will be responsible for major crowd and traffic control responsibilities surrounding the visit, with Hizbollah’s intelligence service supporting them. 

But inside this security cordon, the Iranian president will be protected by Hizbollah’s internal security branch, led by Wafiq Safa’a, alongside Iranian security teams. Both the Iranians and Hizbollah have a long history of training and operating together and the official described the joint effort as a “seamless effort between long-time friends and colleagues”.


* Additional reporting by AFP and Bloomberg