Vol. 10, No. 9 October 24, 2010
- Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon constitutes an additional stage in the process of the Lebanese state’s collapse. From now on, Hizbullah supporters will find it difficult to argue that theirs is a national Lebanese party operating in the Lebanese reality on behalf of Lebanese objectives.
- Ahmadinejad arrived in Lebanon not as the head of a friendly country who wants to promote good relations with a sovereign state, but as the supreme commander who came to review his soldiers at the front against Israel, and as an investor who was coming to check on his investments.
- As opposed to the Sunni axis headed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt that is trying to protect the Sunnis in Lebanon, a radical Shi’ite axis headed by Iran has taken shape that includes Syria, the new Iraq, and the new Lebanon (Hizbullastan).
- The feeling in Tehran is that the more Hizbullah is strengthened, the more the motivation of the United States and the West to invest in Lebanon will decline, and the country will fall like a ripe fruit.
- In contrast with the display of force by the Iranian president in Lebanon, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah cut a sorry figure, orating from his bunker without the courage to stand at Ahmadinejad’s side. The only place where Nasrallah feels secure is at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
Hizbullah’s First Loyalty Is to Iran, Not Lebanon
Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon, the first since he was elected in 2005, and the second by an Iranian president since the Islamic revolution (Mohammad Khatami visited in 2003), constitutes an additional stage in the process of the Lebanese state’s collapse. From now on, Hizbullah supporters will find it difficult to argue that theirs is a national Lebanese party operating in the Lebanese reality on behalf of Lebanese objectives. Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s declaration from May 2008 that he was proud to be a member of the Wali-al-Faqih Party (loyal to Iran’s “Supreme Leader”) has received redoubled force.1
True, the visit opened with Ahmadinejad’s declaration of “the deep historical and cultural roots shared by Iran and Lebanon.” However, it concluded with a meeting with the Hizbullah leader in the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, where Nasrallah presented to the “supreme commander” a rifle that he claimed belonged to an Israeli soldier that was taken as booty during the Second Lebanon War.2
The Iranian president also honored the father of Imad Mughniyeh, the commander of the “Two Victories” (the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000 and the “Divine Victory” in the 2006 war) in an emotional meeting in Beirut, and met Mughniyeh’s son in Bint Jbeil. Furthermore, instead of conducting official diplomatic meetings with Lebanese officials in Beirut, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki visited the shrine of the late Hizbullah leader Abbas Musawi in the town of Nabi Sheeth near Baalbek.3 Iranian Intelligence Minister Heidar Moslehi, who accompanied Ahmadinejad, summed up the visit by noting that it would “promote unity in Lebanon.”4
Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon was portrayed as combining two themes: recognition and respect of Lebanese sovereignty, with visits to the presidential palace in Baabda, meetings with Prime Minister Hariri and the heads of the various communities and parties, and the signing of a series of bilateral agreements, while also visiting Hizbullah strongholds in Dahiyeh and in southern Lebanon. However, this simplistic description ignores the deep implications of the visit. Ahmadinejad arrived in Lebanon not as the head of a friendly country who wants to promote good relations with a sovereign state, but as the supreme commander who came to review his soldiers at the front against Israel, and as an investor who was coming to check on his investments. Since the Second Lebanon War, Iran has quadrupled Hizbullah’s missile force and has invested about $1 billion in rehabilitating the war’s devastation.5
Despite Iran’s economic problems and intensifying criticism at home over its involvement in “Palestine and Lebanon” that steals precious assets from the Iranian state in favor of the adventurous policy of the Islamic Revolution, Iran continues to vigorously support and buttress Hizbullah, whose forces are considered the shock troops of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards in Lebanon. Ali Jafari, commander of the Revolutionary Guards, accompanied Ahmadinejad to Lebanon to guarantee by his very presence the strengthening of this connection. Jafari did not participate in the official visits with the commanders of the Lebanese army, but held clandestine meetings with his own officers in Lebanon.
Anyone who viewed the pictures from Ahmadinejad’s visits in Beirut and southern Lebanon could not fail to notice the symbolism from what was visible and what was missing. There were no pictures of the Lebanese president or prime minister, or even of the Shiite Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament. The dominant pictures were of Iranians: Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and Khomeini. The sole Lebanese figures were Hassan Nasrallah, Imad Mughniyeh, Moussa Sadr (an Iranian-born Lebanese Shi’ite religious leader who disappeared in 1978), and a series of shahid-martyrs who fell in battle with Israel.
What are the primary implications of the visit by the Iranian president?
Implications for Lebanon
Ahmadinejad’s visit reinforces Hizbullah’s position in the Lebanese arena. Iran’s unequivocal siding with Hizbullah is now public and provocative, and is no longer ambiguous. The victor in the choice between Hizbullah and the Lebanese state is now clear to everyone. In the very sensitive days before the publication of the UN investigative report on the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Iran has made it clear that it will not allow its handiwork in Lebanon to be harmed. After a long campaign of delegitimation by Hassan Nasrallah against the investigative commission, the Iranian president arrived and sought to make the role of the international system superfluous by announcing in Beirut that Israel was the one that murdered the prime minister, and therefore the findings of the international investigative commission are of no value.
Furthermore, the Iranian president left no doubt that Iran would stand alongside Hizbullah in any struggle that might develop against it. Iran’s and Hizbullah’s threats that they will not accept any findings of the commission against Hizbullah members leave the explosive situation in Lebanon intact. The danger still exists that Hizbullah will take to the streets and start a conflagration.6
This situation highlights the weakness of the Lebanese state and its sovereignty. It cannot defend itself at home and has no capability of recruiting genuine supporters from abroad, neither from the West nor from the Arab countries. In this way, Hizbullah, with its civilian and military infrastructures, has become the true Lebanese state. The Hizbullah takeover of the Lebanese state has now progressed to an additional stage and the argument has been strengthened that the Lebanese state has undergone a process of Hizbullazation, more than Hizbullah has undergone a process of Lebanonization.
Implications for the Arab World
By flying the flag of the Islamic Republic on the presidential palace in Baabda in Beirut, Iran made it clear that there is a new axis in the Middle East. As opposed to the Sunni axis headed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt that is trying to protect the Sunnis in Lebanon, a radical Shi’ite axis headed by Iran has taken shape that includes Syria, the new Iraq, and the new Lebanon (Hizbullastan).
The main questions at this stage are to what extent Egypt and Saudi Arabia will stand up to Iran’s destructive behavior in Lebanon and how long the Arab hand will be extended to assist the Lebanese prime minister and the groups that he represents. Syria, whose status in Lebanon has been damaged, has not yet given up its influence there and it is maneuvering between its friends and rivals. But it is clear to Syria that there is a new master in the house of Lebanon whose interests do not always coincide with those of Damascus.
Implications for the U.S. and the West
Iran presents itself as an alternative to the United States and the West. It embraces the “new Christians” in Lebanon and promises to protect their status as France, the United States and Britain had done previously, and is even willing to make a false representation in recognizing their special status and the sovereignty of the Lebanese state. Given Western threats to cease supporting the Lebanese army, Iran is able to offer a complete range of weapon systems and generous assistance to rehabilitate the country’s economy. The feeling in Tehran is that the more Hizbullah is strengthened, the more the motivation of the United States and the West to invest in Lebanon will decline, and the country will fall like a ripe fruit, in the spirit of Ayatollah Khomeini’s call for overthrowing the U.S. and the West’s outpost on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Implications for Israel
The words of the Iranian president regarding the extermination of the Zionist state were uttered near the border with Israel in the Lebanese town of Bint Jbeil, a symbol of Hizbullah’s struggle, which was destroyed in 2006 and rehabilitated by Iran. The local stadium was filled with pictures, flags, and symbols of the Islamic Republic to exemplify that an Iranian force is stationed on the border with Israel and taking part in the jihad against Zionism. Add to this the missile force that was built first and foremost as a deterrent to dissuade Israel from damaging Iran’s nuclear capabilities, but also to be ready for deployment should Israel attacked Hizbullah.
In contrast with the display of force by the Iranian president in Lebanon, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah cut a sorry figure. While the Iranian guest swept up the Shi’ite multitudes who support Iran and Hizbullah with his hateful words against Zionism that intensified the closer he approached the border with Israel, Nasrallah continues to orate from his bunker and cannot muster the courage to emerge into daylight and stand at Ahmadinejad’s side. The only place where he feels secure – how symbolic – is at the Iranian Embassy in Beirut.
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1. Tariq Alhomayed, “Welcome Ahmadinijad!” Asharq Alawsat, October 13, 2010.
2. An Israeli Army spokesperson said that the type of assault rifle given as a present to the Iranian president had not been in use by the IDF since 1974 and it is a virtual certainty that it was not captured during the Second Lebanon War.
3. Al-Safir, October 15, 2010.
4. Fars, October 16, 2010.
5. “Iranian Interests in Lebanon,” Daily Star (Lebanon), October 14, 2010.
6. Ash Jain and Andrew J. Tabler, “Ahmadinezhad’s Lebanon Visit and the Fate of the Hariri Tribunal,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policywatch No. 1710, October 12, 2010.
Appendix: For Ahmadinejad and Nasrallah’s speeches see http://www.nowlebanon.com//Print.aspx?ID=208406.
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Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.