You might wonder whether a visit from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who arrives in Beirut today, is really what Lebanon needs right now. The country’s two main political blocs are currently caught in a bitter struggle over the impending indictments of the UN’s Special Tribunal for Lebanon charged with investigating the murder of the assassinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
In this shaky environment, the visit of Ahmadinejad – Hezbollah’s main supporter – is viewed as oil on the fire that could further deteriorate fraught relations between the opposing political and religious parties in this small country.
Invited by the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman, following his own trip to Iran in 2008, many believe the visit will be taken over by Hezbollah, which is preparing a triumphant welcome for the Iranian premier. On the road leading from the airport placards have been put up to celebrate the visit and joint Lebanese and Iranian flags line some highways in southern Lebanon.
During his two-day visit, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to inaugurate a massive garden, to celebrate the country’s staunch resistance to Israel. Overlooking Israel, in Maroun el Rass, one of the closest villages to the border, the “Iran garden” is a $6m (€4.2m) tourism project, replete with bungalows, all funded by Tehran’s municipality.
Last Saturday, Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a speech on the party’s television station, explaining how instrumental Iran was in the aftermath of the 33-day war with Israel in 2006, lending its financial support to the swift reconstruction of the country.
Meanwhile in Beirut, the local pro-western press laments that it is not human rights activist and Nobel Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi or the liberal Mohammad Khatami coming to Lebanon. There is also increasing worry that the visit will further anchor Lebanon into the Iran-Syria axis. Last week, Lebanon’s Information Ministry announced the creation of a joint Lebanese Syrian Information Commission to tighten bilateral relations. Iran has also offered to help Lebanon tackle its chronic electricity shortages and even replace the US arms deal to the Lebanese army, which was recently repealed by Congress.
For Paul Salem, head of the Carnegie Middle East Center, an American think-tank based in Beirut, the visit will no doubt annoy the US, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. But he warns, “The internal escalation will probably start after that date.”