A Small Shove Back

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s first state visit to Lebanon elicited a schizophrenic reaction among Lebanese.

An ecstatic reception awaited him along Beirut’s airport highway Wednesday as his motorcade drove toward Baabda presidential palace to meet President Michel Suleiman.

With great fanfare, Iranian flags, balloons sporting its green, white and red colors, thrown flower petals, and greetings shouted in Farsi by mostly Shia Lebanese welcomed him to the city—a remarkable sight in an Arab capital. It likely left allies of Lebanon’s ruling, Western-backed March 14 Coalition in Amman, Cairo and Riyadh bewildered.

Although most analysts couched the three-day visit in terms of Iran versus the United States, Iran versus Israel, or pondered the implications of Iran’s influence over Hezbollah, few appreciated these frameworks exist only because of the polarized, sectarian nature of the Lebanese state.

Whereas Ahmadinejad’s smiling picture was hoisted with joy in the dahiyeh—Beirut’s Shia-dominated southern suburb—as well as in numerous Shia villages in its southern heartland, in the northern, Sunni-majority city of Tripoli it was a scowling picture of the Iranian leader’s face with a red X painted through it that was displayed. Written underneath was the phrase, “No welcome to the rule of waliyatul-faqih” [the rule of the jurisprudent, established by Iran’s 1979 Revolution].

A group of 250 Lebanese politicians, former MPs and activists penned an open letter to Ahmadinejad, blasting him and his support for Hezbollah:

“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’ … makes it seem like your visit is that of a high commander to his front line.”

Other Lebanese voiced opposition to the alleged establishment of an “Iranian base on the Mediterranean” (a claim normally made by the Israelis).

Indeed, Ahmadinejad was the catalyst who brought out rhetoric highlighting the deep political divisions in Lebanon today. The country remains on edge as the upcoming Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s report on the 2005 assassination of the late premier Rafiq al-Hariri is expected to indict Hezbollah members.

One Lebanese aptly stated the reasons behind the hero’s welcome accorded to Ahmadinejad:

“We love Ahmadinejad because he helps the poor and he helped us rebuild after the 2006 war with Israel … Iran helped us more than Arab states did.”

Israel’s July 2006 war against Lebanon killed 1,200 Lebanese (mostly civilians), and decimated homes and infrastructure in southern Lebanon and the dahiyeh. During the Israeli assault, Saudi clerics of the Wahabi school said Muslims should not support Hezbollah because they are Shia (and issued fatwas to that end) while regional powerbrokers like Egypt and Jordan remained conspicuously silent throughout the 34-day offensive.

In “Spider Webs – The Story of the Second Lebanon War” (2008, published in English as “34 Days: Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon”) Haaretz correspondents Amos Haren and Avi Issacharoff write:

“For the first time, we reveal … that moderate Arab states and the people close to the Lebanese government have conveyed messages to the Israeli government via different sides demanding Israel continue the war until Hezbollah was completely crushed.”

Iran helped rebuild homes devastated by Israel in 2006, as did Qatar. When the (Sunni) emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani recently visited the south, he too was given an enthusiastic welcome.

Although the Shia form a plurality in Lebanon, power has historically been in the hands of Christian and Sunni elites. Many of them, now in the March 14 Coalition, still blame the victims for the Israeli attack instead of the perpetrators. According to Haron and Issacharoff, they hoped Israel would achieve its military objectives even while their country burned.

The manner in which Ahmadinejad was warmly received should be seen in the above light. It was not about him, but rather about the Lebanese thanking those who had extended a helping hand when no other one was forthcoming. To those in March 14 and other Arab governments, it was a small shove back.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator.

Rannie Amiri is an independent commentator on Middle East affairs.