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Lebanon’s prime minister visits Iran

Lebanon’s prime minister kicked off a three-day visit to Iran on Saturday meant to strengthen economic and political bonds between the United States’ chief regional adversary and a nation Washington once upheld as a model for Western-leaning Arab democracy.

The first official visit to Iran by Prime Minister Saad Hariri comes as sectarian tensions within Lebanon simmer. An international tribunal is expected to indict members of the Iranian-backed Shiite Muslim militia Hezbollah in the 2005 assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim.

Saad Hariri hopes that Tehran will rein in Hezbollah, which has warned that it would not tolerate any attempt to implicate the group in the killing.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran has a natural role in the region, especially in resolving crisis and strengthening stability in Lebanon,” Hariri was quoted as saying Friday in an interview with Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency.

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Iran has its own agenda: to prod Hariri to disavow the United Nations’ Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which has been investigating the assassination, and to try to counter Washington’s attempt to isolate Tehran because of its ever-expanding nuclear program.

“By having an American ally such as Hariri go to Iran … they want to send a message they are a regional power that needs to be engaged and not confronted,” said Hilal Khashan, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon last month, signing 17 commercial and infrastructure deals.

Washington has been irked by the warming ties between Iran and Lebanon, the recipient of $100 million in foreign aid this year meant to bolster its security forces.

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A State Department official said the administration recognized Hariri’s right to conduct diplomacy with other countries but said he hoped that he might use the visit to persuade Iran to reverse policies “that increase tensions and violence and work against peace.”

“This visit could be constructive, and we hope it will be,” said the official, who declined to be identified, citing the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue.

Hariri’s visit also could put him in a tight spot with his largely Sunni political base, which resents Shiite Iran’s regional influence. But the visit is not without precedent: Lebanon’s largely ceremonial president, Michel Suleiman, visited Tehran in 2008. Even Hariri’s late father visited Tehran in 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Accusations in news reports that Iranian-backed Hezbollah members carried out the 2005 assassination have cast a shadow over the visit. The Canadian Broadcasting Corp. this month published a report citing documents and sources within the tribunal alleging Hezbollah involvement in the killing. The Swedish daily Expressen published a report Saturday that cited a tribunal investigator accusing Hezbollah and Syria of complicity.

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But the report also said “several of the witnesses backed out or turned out to be implanted by various intelligence agencies,” lending credence to Hezbollah’s contention that the tribunal has been compromised.

Walid Jumblatt, leader of Lebanon’s Druze religious community and a former major player in the country’s pro-Western political coalition, has already called on the government to disavow the tribunal. Hariri has denounced the leaks and begun to distance himself from any contentious conclusions.

“Lebanon is facing a lot of risks, and we all have to consider national unity and stability as a matter that nobody should undermine,” Hariri told the Iranian news agency, according to a transcript provided by his office, “whatever the reasons or circumstances.”

daragahi@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and special correspondents Meris Lutz in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.


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