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Thousands of Lebanese Greet Iran President in Beirut

  • Heather Murdock

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to the crowds from the sunroof of his SUV upon his arrival in Beirut, Lebanon, 13 Oct 2010

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to the crowds from the sunroof of his SUV upon his arrival in Beirut, Lebanon, 13 Oct 2010

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was welcomed in Beirut by thousands of Lebanese supporters and dignitaries.

Children and teenagers waved Iranian flags and sang songs, welcoming President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's first visit to Lebanon. Lebanese officials, including Parliament Speaker Nabih Berry, lined a red carpet to greet the head of state.

But the most raucous welcome for Mr. Ahmadinejad is expected later, when he is to appear alongside his ally Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah at a rally in southern Beirut, a mostly Shiite area, controlled by Hezbollah.

Mr. Ahmedinejad's visit underlines growing tensions between Iranian-backed Hezbollah and pro-Western political parties in Lebanon, such as March 14, the party of the son of slain Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri. Several Hezbollah leaders are expected to be indicted in connection with the Hariri assassination, who was killed with 22 others by a bomb in 2005.

Hezbollah denies involvement in the killings, and says the U.N. court investigating the bombing is biased.

VOA's Susan Yackee interviews Middle East Bureau Chief Elizabeth Arrott:

Mr. Harari's son, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, is expected to meet with the Iranian president and many people inside Lebanon say the visit is a sign of the growing strength of Hezbollah, a State Department designated terrorist organization.

American University of Beirut political science professor and author of "Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism", Judith Palmer Harik says the Iranian president's visit is a significant boost for Hezbollah.

"It is a very important, shall we say, shot in the arm for Hezbollah to have major power and a major supporter and ally like the president of Iran visiting," said Harik.

Hezbollah suffered major losses in a 2006 war with Israel, but many in Lebanon saw it as a victory for the organization. Since then, international and local donations have poured into the Hezbollah coffers, helping the organization re-arm and re-group.

Harik says that Hezbollah, the sworn enemy of Israel, has grown to be an "extremely significant Arab army." But she says, the organization is more likely to attack their southern neighbor, Israel, than attempt to take over the Lebanese government by force.

"Hezbollah does not have any designs in taking over, as you put it, Lebanon," added Harik. "Hezbollah must retain its image as a national resistance force.

Many Lebanese view the Ahmadinejad visit as a simple diplomatic visit between friendly countries. Iran is a major donor country to Lebanon, and is expected to invest $450 million into Lebanon's energy and water sectors.

But some suspect Mr. Ahmadinejad came to Lebanon only to intimidate Israel by propping up Hezbollah.

On the streets of Beirut, many people including Christians who do not traditionally support the Shi'ite organization, say Hezbollah is Lebanon's only defense if tensions along its southern border with Israel should flair again. The Lebanese Army, they say, does not have the resources or the power to defend the country.

While waiting for a bus in a busy commercial district, Jean, 21, a university student and a Christian, says he does not like Mr. Ahmadinejad because of his alleged nuclear designs for Iran. But he says he supports Iran's ally Hezbollah, because they are the only ones protecting southern Lebanon.

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