|Ahmadinejad is undertaking his first state visit to Lebanon, but the trip has sparked controversy in the country [AFP]|
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has arrived in Lebanon for a visit that has split opinion among Lebanese politicians, highlighting internal divisions and underlining Iran’s influence in the country.
Tens of thousands lined the streets around the airport on Wednesday to welcome Ahmadinejad for his first state visit to Lebanon since taking office in 2005, which will include a tour of villages close to the country’s volatile border with Israel.
The crowd threw rice, sweets and rose petals for the Iranian leader as his convoy made its way to Lebanon’s presidential palace.
But pro-Western politicians in Lebanon’s fragile national unity government have protested against Ahmadinejad’s visit, accusing him of treating the country as an “Iranian base on the Mediterranean”.
Iran’s support for Hezbollah, a political party backed mainly by Lebanon’s Shia Muslim community and which maintains a large arsenal as well as close links to Iran, is opposed by Sunni Muslim and Christian political parties, who say that the country’s sovereignty has been undermined.
Al Jazeera’s Rula Amin, reporting from Beirut, said that the visit comes at a sensitive time for Lebanon, where tensions are running high over an investigation into the 2005 killing of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
Members of the pro-Western March 14 political bloc have expressed concern over the timing of the visit.
“They don’t want to feel that this visit will strengthen Hezbollah,” she said. “The country is going through some rough times, and tensions are running high. Some are concerned that the country is sliding towards another round of violence.”
Ahmadinejad is a hugely popular figure among Lebanon’s Shia population, which is mainly concentrated in the southern suburbs of Beirut and in the south of the country, and has borne of the brunt of periodic bouts of conflict with Israel.
“The enemies of Lebanon and Iran are terrified when they see the two nations standing alongside one another,” Ahmadinejad told parliament speaker Nabih Berri, who greeted him at Beirut’s airport on Wednesday. “Today is a new day for us and I am proud to be in Lebanon,” he added.
After a 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, Iran funded the reconstruction of large swathes of conflict damaged areas in Hezbollah strongholds.
The party’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, said on Saturday that Lebanon should thank Iran for supporting “resistance movements in the region … especially at the time of the July war in Lebanon”, referring to the 2006 conflict. “Where did this money come from? From donations? No, frankly from Iran.”
Officials close to Hezbollah say they have spent about $1bn of Iranian money since 2006 on aid and rebuilding. But the West accuses Tehran of equipping Hezbollah with tens of thousands of rockets to be used against Israel.
As well as meeting Lebanon’s president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker, Ahmadinejad will visit towns close to the border with Israel. He is expected to tour towns including Qana and Bint Jbeil, just 4km from the border, which was heavily bombed by Israel during the 2006 war.
The visit has sparked criticism from the US and Israel, which accuses Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, and has not ruled out military action to prevent Tehran building a nuclear bomb.
But Ahmadinejad has repeatedly insisted his country’s nuclear programme is peaceful, and has warned that any Israeli action against it would lead to the destruction of Israel as a political entity.
Caught in the middle
With powerful backers in both the US and Iran, Lebanon has found itself caught in the middle of the row, with both sides seeking to bolster their allies in the country.
The US has given aid and training to Lebanese security forces with a view to eventually disarming Hezbollah, which it considers a terrorist group. But Lebanon’s fractious relations with Israel have complicated this support, and US military aid to the country was frozen earlier this year after Lebanese troops became embroiled in a cross-border clash with Israeli soldiers.
Dan Diker, director strategic affairs at the World Jewish Congress told Al Jazeera that while reaction to the visit might be overblown that Ahmadinejad is “playing a dangerous game with the entire region” by visiting and investing in countries such as Syria and Lebanon.
Diker said that “Israel’s neighbours in the Middle East” worried that the Iranian regime might collapse.
Iran has offered to step in and give Lebanon its own military aid, but diplomats say that weapons sent to Lebanon from Iran would violate UN sanctions imposed over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Ahmadinejad is, however, expected to sign an agreement for a $450 million loan to fund electricity and water projects, as well as an accord on energy co-operation, in what has been percieved as a sign that Tehran is seeking to reinforce its influence in Lebanon.