Pushing a ‘unified’ Lebanon, Ahmadinejad visits Beirut
Iranian’s welcome reflects expanded Hezbollah power
BEIRUT — Welcomed by thousands of Shi’ite supporters throwing rose petals, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sought to pull Lebanon firmly into his country’s fold yesterday in a visit that underscored the growing power of Tehran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.
Ahmadinejad’s first state visit is a bold demonstration by Shi’ite-dominated Iran that it is undeterred by US attempts to isolate it and to roll back the clout Tehran has built up around the Middle East through its alliances with militant groups like Hezbollah and its accelerating nuclear program.
The first visit by an Iranian president in seven years, it also underlines the eroding position of the West’s allies in the deeply divided country. A fragile unity government that combines a Western-backed coalition with Hezbollah and its allies is in power, but many fear it could collapse.
Ahmadinejad’s arrival exacerbated fears among many Lebanese — particularly Sunnis and Christians — that Iran and Hezbollah are seeking to impose their will on the country and possibly pull Lebanon into a conflict with Israel.
Standing alongside President Michel Suleiman of Lebanon at a news conference, the Iranian leader sought to depict his country as an ally of the entire nation, not just the Shi’ite Hezbollah movement.
“We seek a unified, modern Lebanon, and we will stand with the people and government of Lebanon — and with all elements in the Lebanese nation — until they achieve all their goals,’’ Ahmadinejad said, adding that both countries oppose Israeli aggression. “We completely support the Lebanese people’s fight against the Zionist enemy,’’ he said.
The United States and Israel expressed concern over Ahmadinejad’s two-day visit, saying support for Hezbollah militants undermines Lebanese sovereignty.
“We reject any efforts to destabilize or inflame tensions within Lebanon,’’ US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said. “We would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country.’’
Allies of the Western-backed, mainly Sunni parties that hold a slim majority in parliament also showed their worry.
A group of 250 politicians, lawyers, and activists wrote an open letter to Ahmadinejad, criticizing his support of 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,’’ the letter said.
While Ahmadinejad was formally invited by Suleiman and was to meet today with the head of the pro-Western bloc in the government — Prime Minister Saad Hariri — the splashiest welcome came from Hezbollah, Iran’s stalwart ally.
Hezbollah boasts widespread support among Shi’ites, virtually runs a state-within-a-state in Shi’ite areas, and its guerrillas are Lebanon’s strongest armed force. Iran, whose ties to the group date back nearly 30 years, funds Hezbollah to the tune of millions of dollars a year and is believed the supply much of its arsenal.