In a provocative and divisive two day state visit to Lebanon last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad basked in the adulation of Lebanese Shiite crowds assembled by his Hezbollah allies. Ahmadinejad’s controversial trip was designed to: bolster his status as a world leader at a time when he increasingly is under attack at home; give him a platform for shaking his fist at Israel; and boost his Hezbollah clients. Iran has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Hezbollah’s coffers and supplied it with over 40,000 rockets and missiles in recent years to replenish Hezbollah’s arsenal, depleted in its 2006 war with Israel.
Ahmadinejad praised Lebanon as a “university of Jihad” and traveled to Bin Jbeil, a bastion of Hezbollah support near Lebanon’s border with Israel where he denounced Israel, which he said would “disappear” and proclaimed that “the occupying Zionists today have no choice but to accept reality and go back to their countries of origin.”
Ahmadinejad’s visit provoked considerable anxiety among Lebanese, who fought a bloody 15 year civil war in the 1970s and 1980s that was exacerbated by foreign powers, including Iran, Syria, Israel, and the Palestinians. A group of 250 Lebanese political leaders, activists, and lawyers wrote an open letter protesting the visit and accusing the Iranian tyrant of stirring up old divisions and pushing the country toward another conflict with Israel: “Your talk of changing the face of the region starting with Lebanon…. and wiping Israel off the map makes it seem like your visit is that of a high commander to his front line.” A Lebanese Christian told reporters “I am disgusted by this visit. They refer to [Ahmadinejad] as a savior, but all he has brought us is trouble.”
Ahmadinejad’s high profile visit came at a time of rising tension in Lebanon. The U.N. special tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri is soon expected to release a report implicating Hezbollah terrorists in the bombing that killed Hariri. Ahmadinejad’s denunciations of Israel and praise for Hezbollah’s “resistance” is an effort to solidify support for confrontation with Israel and distract Lebanese from the violent threat Hezbollah gunmen pose to Lebanon’s fragile democracy. Ahmadinejad’s belligerent statements from southern Lebanon, which became a battlefield following a Hezbollah cross-border attack in 2006, also served Iranian interests by reminding Israelis that if Israel launches a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, then Iran can use Hezbollah to retaliate.
Lebanon is one of the few places in the world where Iran’s truculent tyrant is hailed as a hero. Ahmadinejad has long since worn out his welcome in much of Iran, where he increasingly is vilified even by other Iranian hardliners, in addition to reformers in the opposition Green Movement. Iranian students and bazaar merchants, once important bases of support for Iran’s Islamist revolution, now have turned against the regime. Earlier this week, Iranian security officials warned against public unrest in response to impending cuts in government subsidies, which could greatly raise the cost of living. Faced with growing criticism at home, Ahmadinejad undoubtedly hopes that his grandstanding in Lebanon will help to shore up his declining domestic political support.