x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Beirut sets scene for Ahmadinejad

Much of Lebanon's four million people may be wondering if Mr Ahmadinejad is arriving as a friend or a conqueror.

A billboard bearing a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic republic, left, and the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is erected near Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, on Monday.
A billboard bearing a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic republic, left, and the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is erected near Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, on Monday.

BEIRUT // When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives in Beirut for his first state visit to Lebanon, many of the hundreds of thousands of people expected to line the streets in welcome also will be thanking the Iranian president for the steadfast support he and his government have shown the Shiite militant group Hizbollah.

The problem is that only about one-third of Lebanese are Shiite and maybe half of them support Hizbollah. That leaves much of the rest of the country's four million people wondering if Mr Ahmadinejad is arriving as a friend or a conqueror, considering the group's near total military and political supremacy in this nation. Fadia Kiwan, the head of the political science department at Beirut's Saint Joseph University, told the local YaLiban website the Iranian president's intent and political deftness remains the question.

"At stake is whether Ahmadinejad is coming to show support for Lebanon or whether he plans to use Lebanese territory as a springboard for his own interests," she said "The Lebanese, and Hizbollah in particular, must fully take advantage of Iran's support but must also realise the limits of this support, that it's a double-edged sword." Iran has spent much of the past five years using its proxies in Hizbollah to politically, and occasionally physically, battle with Lebanon's Sunni population. The Sunnis primarily look to the United States and Saudi Arabia for support. Their conflict has often mimicked the regional power struggle between the Sunni and Shiite states for influence in the region.

And with many Lebanese deeply uncomfortable with Hizbollah's increasing power and influence, not to mention its aggressive pursuit of goals that seem to go beyond its mandate to protect the country's borders from Israel. And adding to the ambivalence felt by many about the visit is that Hizbollah finds itself in a bitter fight with the government of the prime minister, Saad Hariri, a Sunni. They are at odds over the investigation into the 2005 car-bomb assassination of Mr Hariri's father, Rafik, a former Lebanese prime minister, being carried out by the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon. There is a widespread belief that at least some members of Hizbollah will be indicted for the slaying.

With rhetoric by both sides recently reaching an alarming level, given Lebanon's long history of sectarian violence, the feuding has been temporarily set aside for the Iranian's president's visit. While some supporters of Mr Hariri have questioned the timing of the visit by a benefactor of Hizbollah, famed for making inflammatory statements in public forums, the Lebanese government - Mr Hariri included - has gone through great pains to characterise this one as a normal state visit.

Mr Ahmadinejad is slated to conduct the usual round of visits with the president, Michel Suleiman, Mr Hariri and the Shiite speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri. Still, he is also expected to pay tribute to the accomplishments of Hizbollah at a huge rally tomorrow evening in the heart of its stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs. The fete might include rare public appearance by the group's charismatic leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.

The pictures of the Iranian president surrounded by crowds of adoring supporters will probably be unsettling to Mr Nasrallah's political enemies, even if the rhetoric remains directed at Israel and not his domestic rivals. But Mr Ahmadinejad's expected visits on Thursday to south Lebanon - to key sites of Hizbollah's fight against Israel and Iran's financial support for the fight - will be made not with militant leaders, but with Mr Suleiman, another sign that all sides hope to escape this week without a major political incident.

mprothero@thenational.ae