Iran's Ahmadinejad receives rapturous welcome in Lebanon
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, remembered in Lebanon for his role in training a nascent Hezbollah decades ago, returned today for his first state visit.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad received a rapturous welcome from tens of thousands of well-wishers, most of them supporters of the militant Shiite Hezbollah, when he arrived Wednesday for his first state visit to Lebanon.Skip to next paragraph
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At the airport, Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted by Nabih Berri, the Lebanese parliamentary speaker and leader of the Shiite Amal Movement, before heading to the presidential palace in a motorcade flanked by armed guards for the first of a series of meetings with top Lebanese officials.
The much-heralded visit was both eagerly anticipated and viewed with suspicion by rival political camps in Lebanon. Ahmadinejad has described the country as the starting place for "changing the face of the region." Given Iran’s massive military and financial backing for Hezbollah, which has ramped up for a fresh war with Israel – one it says will be regional this time – the United States has described Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon as potentially destabilizing.
“Why is the Iranian president organizing activities that might spark tension? We are taking steps to lower tension … while Ahmadinejad is doing the opposite,” Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, told the pan-Arab Al-Hayat Wednesday.
Doubtless contributing to such concerns were comments from Ahmadinejad on the eve of his departure to Beirut, in which he described Lebanon as the “focus point of resistance” against Israel. He is scheduled on Thursday to tour Lebanon’s southern border with Israel, Iran’s arch enemy.
“Lebanon is the focus point of resistance and standing against those who demand too much,” he was quoted as saying on Iranian state television. “It is playing an excellent role in this regard.”
Ahmadinejad helped train Hezbollah decades ago
While it is Ahmadinejad’s first visit to Lebanon since taking office in 2005, he has been here before, according to residents of the Bekaa Valley in eastern Lebanon. More than two decades ago, as an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), he helped train the nascent Hezbollah.
Hussein, a farmer in his 50s from the village of Taraya in the Bekaa Valley, remembers Ahmadinejad with affection.
“He was a very gentle man and we became friends. When he left Lebanon, he hugged me and kissed me on the cheek,” he said, adding that he named his son Mahmoud in honor of the future Iranian president.
Hezbollah emerged from the Bekaa in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when Lebanese Shiites inspired by the Islamic revolution in Iran were mobilized and trained by a contingent of the IRGC. With ideological, military, and logistical support from Iran, Hezbollah has evolved over the years into arguably the most effective nonstate military force in the world.