MESS Report / Did Ahmadinejad visit to Lebanon help or hurt Hezbollah?
Ahmadinejad visits southern Lebanon while Nasrallah stays hidden in his bunker
Despite the celebrations, the emotional speeches and the tens of thousands of people who came to see Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the southern Lebanon town of Bint Jbail yesterday, it is far from clear whether his visit helped or hurt his Hezbollah proxy.
On the second day of his visit to Lebanon, Ahmadinejad came to within several kilometers of the Israeli border and once again called for the destruction of the "Zionist entity." But to some extent, he thereby violated the Lebanese status quo.
Everyone in the country knows that Hezbollah operates under Tehran's auspices and serves as the long arm of Iran against Israel, but the group had tried to hide this as much as possible and present itself as a patriotic Lebanese organization. Now, there is nothing left to hide: The Iranian president behaved as if he owned southern Lebanon, as well as Dahiya, a Hezbollah-dominated district of Beirut. And this caused all the Lebanese factions, Shi'ite and non-Shi'ite alike, considerable embarrassment.
In other words, the Iranian leader's crude statements may boomerang and undermine Hezbollah's standing among the Lebanese public. Ahmad Fatfat, a Lebanese member of parliament who belongs to the March 14 group, which opposes Syria and Hezbollah, said in an interview with the Lebanese media yesterday that Ahmadinejad's speech in Dahiya, where he applauded Hezbollah's opposition to Israel, reflects the depth of the Iranian presence in Lebanon.
It may be that at this stage, Hezbollah is no longer particularly concerned about its standing among Lebanon's other communities. But for years, the group has tried to win the trust of non-Shi'ite Lebanese. This visit will make it more difficult to achieve this goal.
In his speech yesterday at Bint Jbail, which became one of the symbols of the Second Lebanon War of 2006, Ahmadinejad repeated the same cliches he use in his Dahiya speech. "You are Lebanon's first line of defense, you are heroes, you are those who protect Lebanon's independence," he told the tens of thousands of Shi'ites who gathered at the same soccer stadium where Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah made his famous "spider web" speech two days after the Israel Defense Forces withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000.
Ahmadinejad promised that Iran will continue supporting the Lebanese people and its "resistance" against Israel. But he was careful to avoid expressions that could give the impression that Iran or Hezbollah would use Lebanese soil to attack Israel.
"The Zionists planned to destroy this community [Bint Jbail], but it stood strong against the occupiers," he declaimed. "The entire world should know that the Zionists are destined to disappear from the world, while Bint Jbail will remain alive. And the sons of Bint Jbail will know how to defeat the Zionist enemy."
But this display of force was undercut by the fact that Nasrallah was missing. Not only was he absent at Bint Jbail, but throughout the two-day visit, the Hezbollah leader was never seen in public with the Iranian guest. He made do with a speech broadcast from a bunker - where he is hiding from an Israeli strike. Ahmadinejad's vitriol of victory was dulled somewhat by Nasrallah's absence.
Many analysts argued yesterday that the presence of tens of thousands of people at the rally was the result of Hezbollah pressure on the people. But this is inaccurate.
Many residents of southern Lebanon received aid from Iran after the Second Lebanon War to repair damaged houses or build new ones. Tehran is the one behind the reconstruction of southern Lebanon: homes, schools, hospitals, utilities, infrastructure. The population owes a lot more to Ahmadinejad than it does to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. To them, the Iranian president is the real star.
Meanwhile, on the Israeli side of the fence, the visit passed relatively calmly. Two weeks ago, it was reported that Ahmadinejad was considering coming all the way to the border. But the Iranians apparently reconsidered and decided it would be too risky. They made do with the visit to Bint Jbail.
The IDF followed developments closely, but did not concentrate any forces in anticipation of an incident. Nor did the media cameras on the Israeli side of the border manage to catch a glimpse of the Iranian president.
But the real question is whether the Iranian leader's visit will have any impact on the most fraught issue in Lebanon: the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Though the power struggle over this issue continues, most analysts concur that Hezbollah and its supporters currently have the upper hand.
The international tribunal is expected to announce the indictment of senior Hezbollah figures in December. But following years of delays, it would also not be surprising if another delay occurs. The international community's supreme interest is to preserve Lebanon's stability and avoid a civil war. Faced with tremendous pressure from Syria and Hezbollah, the other foreign powers involved in Lebanon - mainly the Americans, the French and the Saudis - may well capitulate on this issue.
During a meeting with Saad Hariri, Ahmadinejad claimed that he has a plan to resolve the issue of the investigation without a crisis. Part of his plan involves holding a summit for the leaders of Syria, Turkey, Lebanon and Iran.
But it is doubtful whether this proposal will ever bear fruit. Precisely because of Ahmadinejad's aggressive intervention in Lebanon this week, Hariri will now find it more difficult to relinquish his father's legacy and succumb to Iran's dictates.