From dozens of giant billboards mounted on overpasses and hundreds of smaller placards along highways near the Israeli border, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s image peers out, half-smiling and one hand held in an informal salute.
“Welcome,” the signs say in Arabic and Persian. On Wednesday, the Iranian leader makes his first state visit to Lebanon — a visit that includes strongholds of the Shiite militia Hezbollah in the southern suburbs of Beirut and the mountainous south.
Iran’s close ties to Hezbollah and Ahmadinejad’s frequent provocative statements against Israel have set the stage for geopolitical theater with a bite. Hezbollah officials say Ahmadinejad plans to deliver a speech in this town, which was at the center of the monthlong 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
“Ahmadinejad must come to Bint Jbeil,” said Ali Sagheer, a bookstore owner and Hezbollah supporter in the town, which was reduced to rubble in the war and has been rebuilt with money largely from Iran and Qatar. “It’s not a regular city anymore. It’s a symbolic place to the people here — the Stalingrad of the Middle East.”
On a nearby hilltop with a clear view of the lush green farms of northern Israel stands an Iranian-built park complete with a replica of the golden-domed Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, topped with an Iranian flag and surrounded by yet more portraits of Ahmadinejad.
In addition to the tensions with Israel, the visit comes amid continuing disputes between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Lebanon and fears of military action over Iran’s nuclear program.
Tiny Lebanon often finds itself a battleground for regional disputes. Power is shared among shifting alliances of Shiite, Sunni, Christian and Druze political camps grouped roughly into a pro-Western, Saudi-backed faction led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri, and an Iranian-and-Syrian-allied camp led by Hezbollah. More than 400,000 Palestinians, many of them packed into squalid refugee camps, also live in Lebanon.
On Monday, a previously unknown militant Sunni group calling itself the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, after a veteran of the Afghan battle against the Soviets, warned that it would kill Ahmadinejad, a Shiite, should he step foot in Lebanon.
“We will do the impossible to thwart this conspiracy,” said a message posted to Arabic militant websites, local news media reported.
Most Lebanese officials have tried to play down Ahmadinejad’s visit. Both Hariri and President Michel Suleiman plan to meet with him, as they would any other visiting head of state. The emir of Qatar was also feted last summer when he visited southern Lebanon.
Some observers see Ahmadinejad’s visit as a victory lap and a slap to Israel, the United States and its Arab allies in the region, as well as Lebanon. Hariri’s supporters privately complain that Iran is trying to turn their country into an Iranian base on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea.
“We have no objections to the official visit,” said pro-Hariri lawmaker Fares Soueid, according to Lebanon’s official news agency. “As for the popular visit and the tour of the south, the Lebanese government should be aware of the inherent dangers, specifically in the current circumstances.”
But Hezbollah officials counter that support for “resistance” to Israel is enshrined in the government mission statement that Hariri and his allies signed late last year. They insist that any support by Ahmadinejad or Iran for Hezbollah, which was formed to end Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon and is still committed to Israel’s destruction, was legitimate.
“Ahmadinejad’s visit is a symbolic show of support given the vitriolic attacks on the resistance,” said Abdel Hakim Fadlallah, head of the Consultative Center for Studies and Documentation, Hezbollah’s think tank. “Israel does not need a provocation to launch an attack. When Israel sees conditions are right, it will launch its own provocative action or attack.”
Hezbollah boasts it is better armed than during the last conflict with Israel. With supplies and training from Iran and its strategic ally Syria, it says it is capable of wreaking havoc on Israel should another war break out.
Iran has tried hard to portray the event as a routine state visit. It has announced a $450-million loan to help Lebanon improve its ailing water and power infrastructure. Another aid offer is more controversial: It says it is willing to supply and train Lebanon’s military if the West cuts off aid to the country’s security forces following a border skirmish between the Lebanese and Israeli armies this summer.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman denied rumors in Arab and Israeli newspapers that Ahmadinejad planned to stand near the border to symbolically throw a stone toward the Jewish state.
But to the U.S. and Israel, which has long described southern Lebanon as a proxy state of Iran, Ahmadinejad’s visit is a provocation.
“Throwing stones, whether they’re literal …or figurative, I would not consider constructive,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters last week in Washington when asked about the visit.
Two days later, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on Ahmadinejad to contribute to “peace and security in Lebanon and the Middle East as a whole.”
The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that Israel has asked the United Nations, U.S. and France to pass on the message that it views Ahmadinejad’s visit to southern Lebanon as a provocation.
Israel’s National Security Council chief, Uzi Arad, told his French counterpart in Paris that Ahmadinejad’s visit close to the Israeli border should be canceled, and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Ban that Israel was “extremely worried” about the visit, the paper reported.
Many Lebanese, especially those close to Hezbollah, say Iran plays a constructive role in the country, especially in helping to rebuild areas of southern Lebanon and southern Beirut damaged in the fighting with Israel.
“At the very least we have to thank the Iranians for the roads,” said Hussein Rumeiti, a local official in the southern Lebanese town of Burj Qalouway. “The people of southern Lebanon really appreciate Iran. It was the only country that really took care of them.”
The international focus does not obscure the troubles Hezbollah and Ahmadinejad face at home.
Ahmadinejad arrives in Lebanon at a time when domestic economic and political problems have weakened his support among onetime conservative allies. Though Iranians are unlikely to be impressed by the visit, a Western or Israeli backlash might serve to close ranks among squabbling factions in Tehran.
Hezbollah is rattled over the possibility of losing credibility if, as expected, some of its members are indicted in the U.N.-backed inquiry into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the current prime minister’s father. But the visit could serve as a warning to those in Lebanon and abroad who want to disarm it, as called for by the United Nations Security Council.
“Hezbollah will use this visit to show it has strong backing,” said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. “The presence of Ahmadinejad will give Hezbollah a much- needed boost.”