October 14, 2010
Beyond providing TV foot age of welcoming throngs of supporters, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon this week served a number of purposes — none good.
First, it underlined Tehran’s claim to be the dominant foreign power in Lebanon. In an unprecedented scene, virtually all Lebanese political leaders gathered at the presidential palace in Beirut to pay their respects to a man who finances most of them. (It is no secret that Hezbollah is no longer the only Lebanese outfit to be bankrolled by Iran.)
Asserting Iran’s dominance in Lebanon is of geopolitical importance for the Islamic Republic’s leadership. Already strongly present in Iraq, where its allies (the Sadrists, who follow Muqtada al-Sadr) are seeking the lion’s share in a new coalition government, Iran is also the patron of Syria’s Ba’athist regime. Adding Lebanon and Iraq to Syria would give Iran a direct corridor to the Mediterranean for the first time since the 7th century.
Second, the visit demonstrated that Iran now has a “border” with Israel. Ahmadinejad’s assertion that any attack on Hezbollah will be regarded as an attack on Iran hammered in that point. He also insisted on visiting a number of Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon close to the Israeli border.
Third, the visit advanced Iran’s claim to be leading a new “rejection front” of states and movements dedicated to Israel’s destruction. This makes it even more difficult for the Syrian rulers and the leadership in Gaza to consider any negotiations with Israel.
By seizing control of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has nothing to do with Iran, Ahmadinejad hopes to strengthen his position in coming negotiations with America and other nations over Tehran’s nuclear program.
The visit also served a purpose back home: The wall-to-wall coverage from Iran’s state-owned media provided a smokescreen behind which Savama, the dreaded secret police, has arrested an unknown number of people on charges of anti-regime activities and espionage.
Among those arrested are a number of opposition figures, including Mehdi Khazaali and Ali Shakuri-Rad. Savama has also issued an arrest warrant for the son of former President Hashemi Rafsanjani, Mehdi (who happens to be abroad).
The visit’s impact on Iran’s domestic politics is likely to be minimal. The break between the regime, or at least Ahmadinejad’s government, and the Iranian people is unlikely to be mended anytime soon. Despite more than 18 months of repression and attempts at social bribery, the regime hasn’t yet succeeded in regaining its lost legitimacy.
In Lebanon, however, the visit appears to have cowed some parties and groups that oppose Tehran’s plan to create a state within the Lebanese state by using Hezbollah as its horse.
Pro-West parties in Lebanon feel betrayed by the Obama administration, which appears to have subcontracted its Mideast policy to the Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Jordan trio. By announcing a US retreat, notably from Iraq and Afghanistan, is creating a power vacuum that Ahmadinejad is trying to fill.
The Iranian president underscored that point by declaring America to be a “bankrupt empire” that betrays its allies. To show who is boss in Lebanon, he brought with him a 300-man delegation that included dozens of officers from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He offered to build power plants in Lebanon and train the Lebanese army.
More important, perhaps, he received Hezbollah’s “Supreme Council” at the Iranian embassy in Beirut, driving home the claim that he — and not Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s secretary-general — is the real leader of the Shi’ite group. Nasrallah, believed to be hiding in the Iranian embassy since 2006, used the occasion to declare himself to be a “soldier” of the Iranian “supreme guide” and ready to give his life for the Islamic Republic.
According to Iran’s official news agency, Nasrallah also claimed that in Ahmadinejad he found “the scent of Imam Khomeini’s perfume”
Perfume? As they contemplate their country’s takeover by Iran and the threat of a new civil war, many Lebanese would smell a rat.
Amir Taheri is the author of “The Persian Night: Iran Under the Khomeinist Revolution.”