A divided Lebanon waits for Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is making his first visit to Lebanon tomorrow. Hezbollah awaits with joy, its political opponents complain of Iranian meddling, and Israel is eying its northern border.

Hassan Ammar/AP
Poster of the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is seen between Lebanese and Iranian flags, a day ahead of his visit, in Beirut, Lebanon, Oct. 12.

The chatter of families and the smell of grilled lamb and chicken from barbecues wafts through a newly built tourist park perched on a windy hilltop overlooking Lebanon's border with Israel.

This park, in an area occupied by Israeli troops until 10 years ago and pounded during the 2006 Hezbollah war with Israel, is a sign to many Lebanese of the revitalization of the south. But it's a symbol to others, particularly Israel, of what they fear most: an Iranian outpost on the border.

The development was paid for by Iran, whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is due to arrive in Lebanon tomorrow to cement his relationship with Hezbollah, the Shiite political party and militia that is Israel's principal enemy in its northern neighbor.

Mr. Ahmadinejad will attend a rally Thursday in the nearby town of Bint Jbeil and briefly visit this park with its horseback rides, paintball arena, palm-thatched dining areas, and small-scale model of Jerusalem’s golden-domed Al-Aqsa mosque – topped with an Iranian flag. Southern Lebanese supporters of Hezbollah are eagerly looking forward to Ahmadinejad’s visit to this hilltop village, a key battleground in the 2006 war.

“This place means the same to Ahmadinejad as it does to us,” says Mohammed Hussein, taking a break from cooking lamb kebabs. “This place is a symbol of sacrifice and freedom.”

Other Lebanese, however, express misgivings about the imminent arrival of the outspoken Iranian president, fearing his stage-hogging antics will provoke friction along the perennially tense Lebanon-Israel border and potentially aggravate already strained ties between Lebanon’s Shias and Sunnis. On Tuesday, an open letter signed by 250 politicians, civil society activists, journalists, doctors, and teachers called on Ahmadinejad to stop meddling in Lebanese affairs and end its military and financial backing for Hezbollah.

Front line?

“One group in Lebanon draws its power from you… and has wielded it over another group and the state,” the letter said. "Your talk of ‘changing the face of the region starting with Lebanon’ … and ‘wiping Israel off the map through the force of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon'… gives the impression that your visit is that of a high commander to his front line,” the letter added.

Hezbollah has requested its supporters turn out en masse to greet Ahmadinejad when he arrives Wednesday on what will be his first visit to Lebanon since taking office in 2005. Iranian and Lebanese flags line the highway linking Beirut’s city center to the airport alongside portraits of a smiling Ahmadinejad inscribed with “welcome” in Arabic and Farsi.

Hezbollah follows Iran’s religious system and is the recipient of large quantities of financial and military aid from the Islamic Republic.

Ahmadinejad’s visit will be a welcome morale booster for Hezbollah at a time of rising tensions in Lebanon over an investigation into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who died in a truck bombing in February 2005.

Although Syria was widely blamed for Mr. Hariri’s death, there is increasing speculation that the Netherlands-based Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is handling the investigation and any subsequent legal proceedings, has uncovered evidence implicating Hezbollah in the assassination.

Hezbollah has denied any involvement, insisting that Israel killed Hariri. The tribunal is thought to be preparing to issue its first indictments against individual members of Hezbollah before the end of the year.

Syrian room

With the spotlight on Hezbollah, Syria has been given some breathing space, allowing it to patch up relations with Arab states like Saudi Arabia and regain some of the influence in Lebanon it lost in the wake of Hariri’s death. The United States also has stepped up its diplomatic engagement with Syria, hoping to revive peace talks with Israel and to gradually wean Damascus from Tehran’s tight embrace.

Saudi Arabia has played a role in the same process by encouraging Saad Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister and son of the slain Rafik, to reconcile with the Syrian leadership. Saad Hariri has met several times in recent months with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom he once blamed for ordering his father’s murder. Last month, he publicly exonerated Syria in a newspaper interview, saying his past accusations were “political."

Some analysts believe Syria is maneuvering for advantage by playing off its strategic alliance with Iran against Saudi and US efforts to win Mr. Assad to their side.

Still, Syria needs Hezbollah, the most powerful political force in Lebanon, to help project its influence in its tiny neighbor, and the three-decade alliance between Damascus and Tehran shows no sign of unraveling.

“If Syria is reshuffling its cards, it has to take into account Hezbollah as much as Iran,” says Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an authority on Hezbollah. “They are not equal in terms of power, but they [Hezbollah and Iran] benefit Syria in different ways and the alliance between them is extremely important.”

'Axis of resistance'

In a sign that the alliance remains intact, Assad visited Ahmadinejad in Tehran on Oct. 2 and both pledged to expand the “axis of resistance,” the informal union of nations and militant groups opposed to Israeli and US ambitions in the Middle East.

“Policymakers in Washington at first thought Assad’s comments in Tehran were an exaggeration by the Iranian media,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “but the Syrians have confirmed Assad’s words, which… demonstrate the ‘axis of resistance’ seems stronger than ever.”

The prospect of indictments against Hezbollah has roiled Lebanon's sectarian waters, particularly between Shias and Sunnis, which inevitably has affected Ahmadinejad’s high profile visit to Lebanon.

Last week, in Tripoli in north Lebanon, posters of the Iranian president were erected with a X across his face and the message: “You are not welcome in Lebanon.” On Monday, Lebanese media reported that the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, a Sunni Al Qaeda affiliate, issued a warning that “the whole of Lebanon will tremble if Ahmadinejad sets foot in Lebanon.”

Last month, the Abdullah Azzam Brigades released a televised documentary attacking Hezbollah and the Shiite sect in general (adherents of Al Qaeda's chauvinistic brand of Islam deem Shiites to be apostates).

The slickly produced program, titled “The Oppressed Sect,” referring to Sunnis, features scenes from Lebanon’s 16-year civil war of Shiite militiamen attacking Palestinians and more recent footage of Hezbollah fighters with Sunni captives during clashes in May 2008. The hour-long documentary was compiled in the Ain al-Hilweh Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon.

But this isn't the case of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Abdullah Azzam Brigades claimed responsibility last year for firing a pair of rockets into Israel from south Lebanon. United Nations peacekeepers patrolling the southern border are wary of a repeat attack to coincide with the Iranian president’s visit to south Lebanon.

“The Israelis would not be able to resist firing back into Lebanon knowing Ahmadinejad is in the district,” says one UN officer, who asked that his name not be used.

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