Ahmadinejad in Lebanon - AP - Oct 13, 2010
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to the crowds from his SUV upon arrival in Beirut, Oct 13, 2010. Photo by AP
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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised Lebanese President Michel Suleiman on Wednesday that "Tehran will continue to support the bitter struggle of the Lebanese people against Israel."

The Iranian leader, who is to visit southern Lebanon on Thursday, was welcomed with a red carpet and cheered by tens of thousands of supporters lining the streets.

Speaking at the presidential palace in Baabda, he also said, "The Middle East will see no light as long as Israel continues its criminal policies," adding that the Lebanese and Iranian people had "common enemies."

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the ostensible head of anti-Iranian camp in Lebanon, joined other leaders in welcoming Ahmadinejad and embraced and kissed him.

But Hariri, whose father was apparently murdered by the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, would have preferred this visit not to have taken place.

The Iranian president addressed thousands of Shi'ites waving Iranian and Lebanese flags and shouting "welcome" in Persian in Beirut's Shi'ite quarter, Dahiya, which was severely damaged during the Second Lebanon War. Ahmadinejad told his listeners that if Israel attacked Lebanon again, it would shorten the life of what he called "that fraudulent regime."

He praised Lebanon for becoming what he termed a university for jihad, or holy war.

In contrast to Ahmadinejad, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah preferred to take no risks: He remained in hiding rather than come to the soccer stadium where Ahmadinejad's welcome rally was held.

"Mr. President, I welcome you in the name of the martyrs, the wounded, the liberated prisoners," Nasrallah said by video from his bunker. "You are a strong support for the resistance."

Nasrallah said that Iran and Lebanon had a common goal: to bring an end to the "Zionist entity."

"The Iranian and the Palestinian plan is that the entire land, from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River, will return to its owners," he added.

On Thursday, the Iranian president is expected to visit the towns of Kafr Kana and Bint Jbail, where he will deliver another address. He may also tour Maroun al-Ras, near the border with Israel.

But security around Ahmadinejad is very tight, so the timetable for his southern Lebanon visit has not been made public.

Lebanese leaders strove to be welcoming to Ahmadinejad, and Hariri even stressed Iran's right to nuclear technology.

Nevertheless, it was clear to Hariri's pro-Western March 14 group that Ahmadinejad's pronouncements were a direct continuation of Iran's policy of encouraging Hezbollah to fight Israel to the last drop of Lebanese blood. The deep involvement in Lebanese affairs Ahmadinejad evinced on this visit - he also accused Israel of murdering former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri - and his expected address in southern Lebanon today showed March 14 members that he came to Lebanon to demonstrate his domination of the country, not to build a coalition.

There is no real concern that the Iranian president's visit will lead to military escalation between Iran and Israel: It appears to be intended mainly to defy the March 14 group and the West. But the nature of the visit shows how great Iran's influence on Lebanon is.

And more than a few senior members of the anti-Hezbollah camp fear that Hezbollah might try to drag the country into another war, as it did in 2006, if the International Court in The Hague concludes that people from the Shi'ite organization were responsible for Hariri's murder.

On Monday, Lebanese newspapers, especially those identified with Hezbollah, reported that Lebanese security forces had arrested six new suspects on charges of spying for Israel. The papers claimed that one of the suspects had been offered money to collect information about missing Israel Air Force navigator Ron Arad.

It is hard to gauge the reliability of these reports, but their timing, given the harsh criticism Hezbollah suffered on account of Ahmadinejad's impending visit, arouses suspicions that the Shi'ite group was once again trying to argue that the threat from Israel made its continued existence as an armed force essential to Lebanon's security.

For now, however, Hezbollah seems to be focusing on trying to clear its name of the accusation it now faces in Lebanon: that it is an Iranian-Syrian agent looking out for itself, not for Lebanon. It is continuing its welfare activities for the Shi'ite population, and its representatives in parliament have tried repeatedly to undermine the credibility of the international court.

But once the Hague tribunal releases its conclusions on Hezbollah's involvement in Hariri's murder, Hezbollah is likely to revert to its usual pattern: Whenever internal politics heat up, Nasrallah tries to deflect the fire toward Israel.

As for Ahmadinejad, the warm welcome he received was also not unalloyed: An open letter urged him to stop financial and military support to Hezbollah.

The letter, signed by 250 intellectuals, Muslim and Christian clergy and business people, said Ahmadinejad should support all of Lebanon's political groups, as is fitting for a cooperative relationship between two sovereign countries.

The letter, which was published in the Lebanese daily An-Nahar, said Hezbollah was taking advantage of Iranian support to flaunt its power. The signatories said they supported the Palestinian struggle for independence, the Arab peace initiative and UN Resolution 1701, and would not accept Ahmadinejad's assertion that Lebanon is the spearhead of the struggle with Israel, and that the battle against Israel and the United States would begin in Lebanon.

Jack Khoury contributed to this report