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.
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.
Hezbollah’s relentless campaign of resistance against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon led to a unilateral Israeli troop withdrawal in 2000. Six years later, Hezbollah stunned Israel by fighting its troops to a standstill in the hills and valleys of south Lebanon. More than 1,100 Lebanese were killed and Lebanon suffered immense infrastructure damage.
But Hezbollah declared a “divine victory,” and since then has strengthened its military capabilities even further in anticipation of yet another war with Israel. Hezbollah is believed to have acquired new anti-aircraft systems and surface-to-surface rockets with guidance capabilities allowing it to accurately strike strategic targets in Israel for the first time. Thousands of recruits have been trained since 2006 and new battle tactics have been prepared for a confrontation that many on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border believe is inevitable.
Ahmadinejad's vision of Israel being 'wiped from the map'
Ahmadinejad has repeatedly claimed that the next war with Israel will be the last, and that it will lead to the end of the Jewish state. In February, he urged Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, to prepare his forces so that if the Israelis want to “repeat the mistakes of the past, then their case should be closed once and for all and the region delivered from their evil ways forever.”
Hezbollah leaders constantly echo the refrain that Israel will be defeated in the next war. While there is an element of psychological warfare in such pronouncements, the grassroots Hezbollah fighters hold the promise of Israel’s demise as an article of faith.
“We believe what our leaders tell us and we believe that we will finish off Israel in the next war, God willing,” says Ali, a veteran Hezbollah combatant from the village of Addaisseh on the border with Israel.
Tensions on the rise in Lebanon
Political and sectarian tensions are on the rise again in Lebanon amid unconfirmed reports that an international tribunal is set to issue indictments against members of Hezbollah for the assassination in 2005 of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister. An Al Qaeda-affiliated group issued threats on the eve of Ahmadinejad’s visit. On Wednesday morning, a small bomb destroyed a parked car in north Lebanon belonging to a Sunni cleric who is allied to Hezbollah.
But in south Lebanon – Hezbollah’s frontline with Israel – attention remains concentrated on war with Israel.
“The fighters in the south do not bother themselves with the tensions in Beirut. They are completely focused on the struggle against Israel,” says Ali.
Ahmadinejad is to attend a rally in the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburbs of Beirut Wednesday evening.
But the highlight of his trip will be his visit to south Lebanon on Thursday. He is scheduled to attend rallies in Bint Jbeil, a town that was heavily damaged in the 2006 war, and the village of Qana, scene of two Israeli massacres of Lebanese civilians in artillery shelling and air strikes in 1996 and 2006.