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Lebanon\ VIP visit


Rodger Shanahan


14 October 2010 11:44

In this case, VIP stands for Very Iranian Person, as President Mahmoud Ahmedenijad commences his two-day official visit to Lebanon. 

The Lebanon visit fits perfectly with Ahmedenijad's vision of Iran as a leader of the Muslim world, and his view that Iranian political (as opposed to theological) influence demands that it be seen as a serious player in the broader Middle East. Lebanon is merely an outstanding stage on which to play, given that it offers so many benefits:

  1. Leadership one-upmanship: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia visited in July along with Syria's President Assad, and they took part in low-key talks. 'Low key' is the last thing President Ahmadinejad wants, and Hizbullah's ability to provide massive crowds for Ahmadinejad's public appearances both plays to his view of himself as a leader of the masses, and Iran as a nation capable of inspiring Muslim Arabs as well as Persians.
  2. A border with Israel: No self-respecting self-proclaimed protector of the Muslim lands is going to give up an opportunity to visit southern Lebanon and vent his fury on Israel. His reported visit to the south to view Iranian-funded reconstruction efforts is designed to show Iran's regional reach, although the rumoured border rock-throwing has evidently been cancelled.
  3. A politically-active Arab Shi‘a population: There continues to be great concern in the Sunni world about the growth of Shi‘a political power. In Iraq, the stronger hand is still being held by Prime Minister Maliki's sectarian list, and Shi‘a unrest in Bahrain over a government crackdown in advance of elections adds to regional concerns. Ahmadinejad's presence in a country with a politically powerful Arab Shi‘a organisation is a way of reinforcing Iran's profile as a successful supporter of its co-religionists' efforts to win political power.
  4. Palestinians aplenty: Part of Iran's claim for greater respect in the Muslim world rests on its public and unstinting support for Palestinians, most notably Hamas. One thing Lebanon is not short of is Palestinians and Ahmadenijad's nose for populist symbolism showed itself with his 'spontaneous' visit to Palestinian refugees on his arrival in the capital.

Lebanon's weak government and patchwork of communal groups has meant that external players have always been courted to intervene in order to protect narrow sectarian interests. Iran's presence is part of that tradition, but the lack of internal balancing forces against its Hizbullah client make this relationship qualitatively different. It will be interesting to see what comes from the visit, and a post addressing that issue will follow.

Photo by Flickr user Daniella Zalcman, used under a Creative Commons license.