Bolstering the resistance axis
Iran's president arrives in Lebanon this week with offers of economic assistance that Lebanon may find it difficult to refuse, reports Lucy Fielder in Beirut
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad pays his first visit to Lebanon this week in the teeth of fierce Israeli opposition and US disquiet. Given divisions over Tehran's backing for Hizbullah, the two-day visit has been hotly debated in the local media, some fearing that it could trigger clashes.
The official visit on the invitation of Lebanon's President Michel Suleiman has long been planned, and follows a visit by Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz, a rival for local and regional influence, in late July.
However, many see the arrival of Iran's firebrand leader as a sign of the ascendancy of a pro-resistance axis in Lebanon and the region. Iran supplies many of the Islamist group Hizbullah's weapons, by the group's own acknowledgement. For that reason, Israel has reportedly been working behind the scenes to stop the visit.
Ahmadinejad's visit also comes at a time of rising tensions over the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which analysts and politicians, including Hizbullah, expect to indict members of the Shia guerrilla group for the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri.
After more than two years of calm between the bloc allied to Al-Hariri's son and current Prime Minister Saad Al-Hariri and Hizbullah and its allies, the old rift is reopening.
Many in the 14 March movement, which is backed by the United States and Saudi Arabia, see Ahmadinejad's visit as provocative, especially his trip to the southern border. For them, it shows that Iranian influence in Lebanon is growing, and cements the demise of the pro-Western current that rose after Al-Hariri's killing.
"Ahmadinejad's visit is a quasi-official announcement of Lebanon's accession to the regional axis that includes Islamic Iran and Bashar Al-Assad's Syria, confronting Israel and the United States, and often the international community," Sarkis Naoum wrote in the pro-14 March daily An-Nahar the day before the visit.
This "consecration of the new reality" had not earned Lebanese consensus, he said.
For Hizbullah and its allies on the other hand, Ahmadinejad's arrival -- heralded by billboards along the airport road and on the main highways to the south -- is a victory and also an affirmation of Lebanon's foreign policy independence from the West, and therefore of its sovereignty.
Iran is believed to have donated about $1 billion to rebuilding the south after the 2006 war, and Ahmadinejad is to visit Bint Jbeil, a large border town that was devastated in the conflict and subsequently benefited from Iran's largesse.
Since the Iranian head of state is scheduled to meet Al-Hariri, as well as "consensus president" Suleiman, many of Iran's critics in Lebanon were quieter than might have been expected ahead of the visit, most limiting their invective to the subject of the tribunal.
"There are of course tensions in the country, but the different sides are trying to keep things calm," said Sahar Atrache, Beirut-based analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank. "I can't see instability specifically connected with this visit, or an escalation immediately afterwards."
Hizbullah is widely expected to step up its campaign against the tribunal in the coming months, and some have predicted that the visit could herald a new, more confrontational stage, perhaps widespread civil disobedience.
However, such a step by the former opposition directly after the Iranian president's visit would seem to confirm that Iran wielded a negative influence over Lebanon, and therefore play into its critics' hands.
"We are likely to see an escalation in the coming months, but it's going to be a gradual process," Atrache added. "The polemic saying otherwise is just part of the political game between the two sides."
Problems in Tripoli are a possibility, analysts say, but Atrache said they would be too distant and too localised to interfere with Ahmadinejad's visit.
In times of tension, this city often sees clashes between its majority Sunni population and a pocket of adherents to the Alawite sect, a branch of Shia Islam shared by Syria's president. The threat of The Hague Tribunal trying a Shia group for the killing of a Sunni leader has raised fears of heightened tensions between Sunnis and Shia in Lebanon.
Apart from long-standing issues such as support for Hizbullah and repercussions from any Hizbullah indictment, the most controversial item on the official agenda is likely to be military aid to Lebanon's under-funded and ill- equipped army, an offer Iran put on the table several months ago.
Economic cooperation is also high on the list. Iran is reportedly offering to help Lebanon with its electricity supply, a savvy diplomatic move towards a country where electricity cuts out for at least three hours a day in the capital, longer in less-developed areas.
Plans to rehabilitate two refineries that are currently out of use could play well even to Iran's critics here, since this is an issue close to the hearts of all sides. Lebanese Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil also visited the Iranian capital in early October.
Easing Lebanon's chronic power supply problems would reach all sects and regions, whether they chose to recognise it or not. Ahmadinejad is expected to sign off on a $450 million loan to fund power and water projects.
An Iran-Lebanon energy pipeline is also reportedly on the cards, as well as technical assistance in tapping gas fields believed to lie off Lebanon's shore. Bassil said Lebanon was keen to exploit Iran's expertise in dam construction for more efficient use of the country's abundant but often wasted water resources. He welcomed Iran's readiness to solve the tiny country's dire energy problems.
"Obviously if Iran comes and says we're going to give you funds for your army, help you with electricity and water supply and build an energy pipeline, you have to consider it," said Karim Makdisi, assistant director of the American University of Beirut's Issam Fares Institute.
"Lebanon should be looking into how to be clever about this, to take the best elements without compromising itself."
The majority of Lebanese want neither Iranian nor Saudi control in the country, he added. Barring support for Hizbullah, current Lebanese- Iranian cooperation is mainly limited to private business.
Trade agreements can undoubtedly help ease the pain of international sanctions on Tehran, designed to pressure it over its nuclear programme, which were stepped up in June. But they also create an official ally for a country battling isolation within the region as well as outside it. "This lessens Iran's isolation, and relatively speaking, it won't cost it that much," Makdisi said.
Atrache said the signing of an economic cooperation pact between the two countries was almost certain, since it was on the official agenda, but dealing with Iran was hard for a divided country.
"Iran is under sanctions, and that puts Lebanon in a difficult situation where it has to balance itself between the large part of the Lebanese who support being part of an axis with Iran and the other side," she said.
"But Lebanon really cannot lose its international allies. I can't see it accepting Iranian military support." (see Editorial p.12)