President Ahmadinejad's Trip to Lebanon

Emile Hokayem

       The two-day visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Lebanon on Oct. 13-14 was a thunderous display of Iranian "soft power" and a testament to the strength of Tehran's relationship with its Shiite ally Hezbollah. Yet the visit did not reflect any shift in Iran's policy in Lebanon, despite the new bilateral agreements they signed. It was instead a victory lap and a defiant demonstration of Iran's reach in the face of Israel, the United States and
Arab officialdom.

       The official welcome for Ahmadinejad by the Lebanese state, which included an honorary degree from Lebanese University, was overshadowed by Hezbollah's reception. For his fiery speeches, Hezbollah assembled massive crowds in both its strongholds of Dahyiah, the poor southern suburbs of Beirut, and in Bint Jbeil, the southern town near the Israeli border that symbolizes Hezbollah's military persistence during the month-long war in 2006.
Ahmadinejad's visit to southern Lebanon is the closest any Iranian leader has come to Israel since the 1979 revolution. It significantly heightened tensions along one of the Middle East's most volatile borders. Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, presented Ahmadinejad with an Israeli rifle seized during the 2006 war.

       The Iranian leader reprised the themes of the struggle against injustice, Israel and the United States. He celebrated Hezbollah's fighters, "martyrs" and followers. He pledged continued support for the powerful Lebanese militia and political party until its "victory" against Israel. Although the visit was controversial among Lebanon's rival religious sects, many Lebanese clearly shared a deep emotional connection with Ahmadinejad. The Shiite
community, the largest of Lebanon's 18 recognized religions, was both sympathetic with his worldview and grateful for Iran's political, financial and military support for Hezbollah. Tehran contributed millions of dollars for reconstruction of southern Lebanon after the 2006 war.

       Ahmadinejad's visit also came against a backdrop of deepening political tensions inside Lebanon. Many of Hezbollah's opponents were either uneasy or hostile during Ahmadinejad's brief visit. Hezbollah also expects the Special Tribunal for Lebanon set up by the United Nations to soon indict some of its members for the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Ahmadinejad painted the tribunal as a tool of the West. Hezbollah has
challenged the tribunal's legitimacy and its proceedings. The movement, which is currently part of the governing coalition, has also reportedly tried to intimidate the Lebanese government into denouncing the U.N. investigation.

       Lebanese authorities, including President Michel Sleiman, had to play a delicate balancing game between accommodating a foreign leader with powerful local allies and not offending their Western and Arab partners who are deeply suspicious of Iran's intentions. One of the issues at stake is a $100 million U.S. aid package to help strengthen the Lebanese military.

Read Emile Hokayem's chapter on Iran and Lebanon in “The Iran Primer” 

Emile Hokayem is a senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in the Middle East.