President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Beirut for his first official visit to Lebanon, a trip that signals the growing strength of the Iran-backed Shiite Muslim Hezbollah movement.
The Iranian leader met today with President Michel Suleiman and later held talks with Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, a Hezbollah ally.
“Your visit is important to friends, and became more important thanks to our enemies,” Berri told Ahmadinejad on arrival, according to the Shiite group’s television channel, Al-Manar. Ahmadinejad said that “enemies become more savage when they see friends with each other,” the station reported.
Thousands of Lebanese welcomed the Iranian leader after he left Beirut’s airport, and pictures of Ahmadinejad with words of welcome in Farsi and Arabic lined the road from the airport. Ahmadinejad’s visit highlights the difficulties faced by the U.S.-backed Hariri, who is confronting a growing challenge from Hezbollah a year after he brought the Shiite group into his national-unity government.
“Hezbollah is brandishing its ties with Iran in the face of the U.S. and Israel, not to mention Arab regimes,” said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, author of a forthcoming book, “The Iran Connection: The Alliance with Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas.” “It therefore signals the movement’s empowerment.”
Hezbollah and its allies are threatening to block budget funds for a United Nations probe into the 2005 killing of former Lebanese premier Rafiq Hariri, Saad’s father, amid speculation members of the group may be among those indicted. Hezbollah says the UN tribunal is biased, has been misled by “false witnesses,” and should be abolished.
The budget deadlock comes as Lebanon seeks to reduce debt that reached 147 percent of gross domestic product last year. That’s one of the world’s heaviest debt burdens, and should be addressed by increasing tax revenue and reducing subsidies to the power industry, the International Monetary Fund said in a report last week.
Still, the economy has performed “remarkably well” during the global financial crisis, partly due to the “more stable political environment” provided by the Hariri coalition, the IMF said. It forecasts growth of 8 percent this year, from 9 percent in 2009.
Hezbollah, backed by Syria as well as Shiite-ruled Iran, is classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel. It won popularity in Lebanon by helping force Israel’s army to withdraw from the country in 2000, ending an 18-year occupation.
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor has called the visit “particularly destabilizing” and said it’s part of Iranian efforts at “expansion and confrontation.”
Philip J. Crowley, a State Department spokesman, said the U.S. doesn’t think Ahmadinejad’s plan to travel close to the Israeli border is a “good idea.”
Hezbollah fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006, during which it fired thousands of rockets at the Jewish state. Hezbollah has defied a UN Security Council resolution calling for disarmament, saying it needs to defend the country from Israel, which invaded in 1978, 1982 and 2006. Hezbollah and its allies also clashed with other Lebanese groups in May 2008, leaving at least 80 people dead after its gunmen took over parts of Beirut.
“We want to tell the whole world that we’re proud of our friendships and ties with resisting countries,” Hezbollah’s deputy leader, Naim Qasem, said this week.
Iranian money helped rebuild the southern suburbs of Beirut, which are a stronghold of Hezbollah and were targeted by Israel during the 2006 war, Nasrallah said on Oct. 9.
Ahmadinejad attended a rally held for him in a stadium at the southern Dahiyeh suburb of Beirut, where he was welcomed by thousands of supporters waiving Iranian and Hezbollah flags. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah welcomed the Iranian leader, via video link for security reasons.
“The West can’t put up with the Iranian president because he says the truth and declares that Israel is an illegitimate state and must disappear,” Nasrallah said to a cheering crowd.
Ahmadinejad said, “Lebanon is the cradle of the free, a school of resistance and perseverance against the tyrants of this world.”
The Iranian president tomorrow will visit the southern villages of Qana and Bint Jbeil, on the border with Israel.
The visit serves a domestic purpose for Ahmadinejad, who’s trying to “shift the focus from his internal failures,” said Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in Norman.
“Iran’s economy is in chaos,” Landis said. “Lebanon is one of the few successes he can point to, it’s an exception. Hezbollah is in the ascendancy and Iran has helped it.”
Iran’s economy probably grew by 1 to 2 percent this year, slowed by weak domestic demand, the IMF said last month.
The two countries today signed agreements to cooperate on trade, energy, health, agriculture, telecommunications, education, water, the environment and tourism.
“There are no limits to cooperation between our two countries,” which have “common interests and common enemies,” Ahmadinejad said in a joint press conference with Suleiman. Iran stands “side by side” with Lebanon and supports national unity in the country, he said.