Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Lebanon on Wednesday with all the theater of a conquering hero. Arms up in triumph as his motorcade moved from the airport to Beirut, Mr. Ahmadinejad blew kisses to an adoring, flag-waving crowd organized by Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah militia.
The arch-conservative Iranian president looked as if he were on the campaign trail again, hunting for votes back home in Iran.
But while Ahmadinejad sought to bolster Lebanon’s role as in the axis of resistance against Israel and its US and Western supporters – expressing Iran’s “unlimited” support for fellow Lebanese “students of justice” – Iranians are making different priorities.
That's because, during his two-day taste of regional triumphalism in Lebanon, largely rebuilt with billions in Iranian cash after a destructive war with Israel in 2006, Ahmadinejad left behind a host of problems.
“I don’t think the public at large is really that fascinated with Lebanon or the Lebanese resistance, [though] support for Hezbollah is wide within the Iranian population,” says an analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named. “But I’m not sure that anything is going to deflect [Iranians] from where we are right now, which seems to be a crisis. I don’t think it’s going to be that simple to cover it up with a two-day trip to Lebanon, no matter what kind of reception [there is].”
Iranians aren't sharing in the rapture
Indeed, back in Iran there are rising concerns about plans to severely curtail energy and gasoline subsidies (even a partial cut in 2007 sparked violence and the burning of gas stations); dramatic fluctuations in the value of the rial against the dollar in the past week; an economy squeezed by UN, US, and European sanctions; and a host of political battles – especially among conservative factions – that have been magnified by the president’s divisive style.
So Iranians have not shared in the rapture experienced by their president, who was showered with flower petals in Beirut.
“Internal issues have taken over everything else,” says the Tehran analyst. “The public is much more intrigued by what the final price of gasoline will be than where this [visit to Lebanon] will lead to.”
Axis of resistance
Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, leaders of the Islamic Republic have sought to “export” the revolution, and cast their country in recent years as head of an axis of resistance that includes Lebanese Hezbollah, Syria, and the Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
That influence peaked in the aftermath of what Hezbollah called a “divine victory” against Israel in a 33-day conflict in the summer of 2006, with pro-Iranian leaders at the helm in Baghdad, and with United States military fortunes under fire in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since Iran’s disputed June 2009 election, and a violent aftermath that left scores dead and thousands detained, Iran’s image as legitimate regional leader has been tarnished.
In Beirut on Wednesday, Ahmadinejad sought to reclaim that torch of resistance during his first-ever visit as president. Standing beside President Michel Suleiman, he called for the end of Israeli occupation and territorial disputes over Arab lands with the Palestinians, and in Syria and Lebanon, and said there could be no peace for Israel.
“All the occupied Palestinian territories must be liberated,” said Ahmadinejad, who has frequently predicted that Israel will one day disappear – and recently suggested that Lebanon will play a key front-line role.
“This criminal spirit of the Zionist entity can be seen very clearly by its military assaults and by its military wars,” said Ahmadinejad, according to a simultaneous translation on Iran’s English-language PressTV. “Our region of the Middle East can never see light, can never see stability, can never see justice with the Zionist entity, so we support the struggle of the Lebanese in confronting these Israeli assaults.”
Opposition leader criticizes president's 'adventurism'
Though Iranians may be focused more on domestic issues and a failing economy, the government’s activity abroad has not gone unnoticed.
Opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has been under virtual house arrest since he challenged the official results that bestowed a 2-to-1 reelection victory on Ahmadinejad in the June 2009 election, complained about Ahmadinejad's leadership in a statement last week.
“Who gave you the right to alienate the entire world by your adventurism and tyranny and create the sorry state in the economy and politics of the country?” asked Mr. Mousavi. “Arrange a referendum so you can see whether or not the people will continue to accept these destructive policies.”
Iranian officials have been undeterred by such statements, often dismiss opposition figures as “leaders of sedition” who should face trial, and otherwise have deployed armed hard-line vigilantes to surround and vandalize their homes and offices, in order to intimidate.
Ahmadinejad speaking to a shrinking constituency
Ahmadinejad made no mention of Iran’s internal strife when he spoke in Lebanon:
“I would like to express my thanks to the heroic Lebanese people, the great people of resistance, these people are dear to our hearts,” the president said. “I announce here that the Iranian people, in all events, in all arenas, until all the major goals are achieved, the Iranian people will stand side-by-side with the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people.”
That might be news to many Iranians, who in the aftermath of Iran’s mid-2009 election coined a slogan that they were willing to die only for Iran, no longer for Lebanon or Gaza.
“The constituency listening to those types of [axis of resistance] speeches is shrinking,” says the Iran-based analyst. “The problem with Tehran is the Believers are the Believers, the non-Believers are the non-Believers. The majority [of Iranians] have lost interest in regional issues because they are so tied up in the internal mess that they just don’t have the time to pay attention to it."
“There was a point in time two or three years ago, when the economy was doing OK and people were somewhat prospering because of high oil prices,” adds the analyst. “[Ahmadinejad] enjoyed pretty widespread support on the nuclear policy and confrontation over it. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore; I think people are just too tied up in their daily problems to get involved in this hoopla.”