The Lebanese braced themselves – some in excitement, others in dread – when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit was announced. Since the early 1980s, when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard helped to set up Hizbullah, the Islamic resistance movement in Lebanon has been ‘the lung through which Iran breathes’ in the Arab world, as the late Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, an early mentor to Hizbullah, famously put it. That lung has developed into a mini-regional power – the only Arab army to have forced Israel to withdraw from Arab land, as Hizbullah often brags – and a major player in Lebanon’s highly sectarian, highly volatile political system, adored by its Shia followers and resented by many Sunnis and Christians.
It was only natural for Ahmadinejad to come to Lebanon to sing the praises of the Resistance, as Hizbullah is known in the region. Like any man who’s deeply unpopular at home, he was looking for love, and he could count on the traditional Shia greeting of rice and flowers, as well as a hero’s welcome from the Hizbullah leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah. Anything less would have been discourteous, considering the hundreds of millions of dollars – not to mention the seminary training, and the tens of thousands of rockets – that Tehran has given to Hizbullah.
The prospect of a love-in between Ahmadinejad and tens of thousands of Hizbullah supporters on Israel’s border was not a welcome one in Western capitals. With its usual respect for Lebanese sovereignty, the US urged the Lebanese government to deny him entry, hinting that it might be forced to cut aid to the Lebanese army. Israel wasn’t pleased, either, though some right-wing Israeli politicians noted that the Iranian president would be an easy hit for the IDF in southern Lebanon. ‘To assassinate Ahmadinejad today is like assassinating Hitler in 1939,’ said Aryeh Eldad, a MP in the National Union party. ‘He must not return home alive.’
Iran’s extremist Sunni opponents in al-Qaida made similar threats, promising that Lebanon would ‘tremble’ if Ahmadinejad set foot there. False alarms, as it turned out: the visit passed without incident. Ahmadinejad didn’t even throw a stone at Israel from the border, confining himself to his typical slogans about the imminent disappearance of the Zionist enemy. He doesn’t seem to have faced any tough questions about the state of Iranian politics, either, partly thanks to the Lebanese government, which successfully pressed the organisers of the Beirut International Film Festival to cancel a planned screening of Green Days, a documentary about protest and repression during the 2009 electoral crisis.
The Iranian opposition, however, was less keen to spare Ahmadinejad’s feelings. A group of prominent Iranian intellectuals published an appeal to the Lebanese people, and Nasrallah received a fiercely critical open letter from a prominent Iranian reformist, Mohammad Reza Khatami. Khatami, the leader of the Islamic Iran Participation Front, is known for his liberal views, but he is also very well connected: the younger brother of the former president, the former deputy speaker of parliament, and the husband of Khomeini’s granddaughter. The letter, published on his party’s website, began by reminding Nasrallah that ‘you and all knowledgeable people are aware of [Ahmadinejad’s] standing in the eyes of the people of Iran.’
Hundreds of the ‘true’ followers of Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution, Khatami continued, face the ‘most severe kind of pressure’ and the ‘worst conditions in prison’. Only a few days ago, he said, another reformist leader, Ali Shakouri Rad, a supporter of Hizbullah, was arrested after calling for the resignation of Gholamhossein Mohseni Eje’i, Iran’s prosecutor general; as the minister of intelligence during the 2009 presidential election crisis, Eje’i had presided over a wave of arrests. ‘In our opinion,’ Khatami said, ‘one cannot claim resistance against the Zionist regime and at the same time refuse to denounce the injustice against these true fighters, or, even worse, to approve of these actions.’