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    Ahmadinejad in Lebanon Is High Drama

    If there is a symbolic seminal moment in the broad ideological struggle that defines the Middle East these days, it will be this week’s visit to Lebanon by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His visit already generated significant advance debate in the Lebanese and regional media before it started, most of which – like so much else related to Lebanon, Iran, Hizbullah, Israel and the US these days – was divisive, polarized and not particularly enlightening. This is a moment of intensity and drama, but probably not one of political innovation or substantive change.

    If Ahmadinejad, as planned, goes to south Lebanon and visits Hizbullah-controlled villages near the Israeli border, we should expect political emotions to go through the roof in both the pro-Iranian and anti-Iranian camps. This will not be a surprise, because Ahmadinejad overlooking the northern border of Israel in the company of his Hizbullah allies is a nightmare for most Israelis and many of their friends in the West, while for Hizbullah and its allies in the region this would be a prize-winning moment of defiance to be savored for a long time.

    The intensity on both aides is so high because this visit is not a routine, one-dimensional visit; it is a routine, multi-dimensional visit that touches on some of the most emotional and existential hot-button issues in the region. This is because Iran’s success in helping Hizbullah become a dominant force in Lebanon and a major regional player in the Arab-Israeli confrontation makes this perhaps the only significant foreign policy success of the Islamic revolution in Iran. The combination of Iran and Hizbullah also frightens many people in Lebanon and the Arab world, in Israel, and in the US and other Western lands. The Iranian president’s visit to Lebanon thus captures in a single moment, place and personality all these fears, of which four seem most relevant.

    The first is the fear of many Lebanese, on three distinct counts: a) the growing influence of Hizbullah may herald a heightened Islamicisation of the country, which they fear would diminish its distinct character as a pluralistic, liberal society; b) Iran’s and Syria’s ties to Hizbullah magnify the legacy of external parties engaging directly in domestic Lebanese affairs (on both sides of the main ideological divide in the country); c) Hizbullah’s self-definition as a “resistance” movement that actually resists and fights Israel (and occasionally others in the region or in Lebanon) heightens fears that Lebanon is destined to be a battleground for years to come, with all the suffering and dislocation that war brings. Many Lebanese – perhaps half the population? – would like to end Hizbullah’s autonomous status in the country which they see as a means of ending the non-stop destruction of their country due to regional warfare since the 1970s.

    The second fear is among Israelis, who are concerned about Iran and Hizbullah for slightly different reasons. They are perplexed by their inability to intimidate Hizbullah or seriously degrade its weapons capabilities during the Israeli attacks of 2006, making this Lebanese Shiite resistance movement the first formidable Arab foes that Israel has not been able to vanquish through its direct militarism or its manipulation of American foreign policy in the region. Israelis are concerned about Iran for the implications of a nuclear country that both threatens Israel verbally and maintains close contacts with Arab states and movements that have engaged in direct military confrontations with Israel.

    The United States and other Western powers are unhappy with the Iranian-Hizbullah link because these two parties represent an advanced form of indigenous Middle Eastern defiance of Western power, threats and sanctions. Western global powers are not used to having smaller Middle Eastern countries or movements ignore the orders or threats that emanate from Washington, London or other Western capitals. Lebanon has been a central test case of American support for the majority in the Lebanese government that confronts Hizbullah in some respects, so this visit represents a blow to Washington’s strategy of bringing Lebanon firmly into its orbit.

    For most Arab governments, the Iranian-Hizbullah connection represents everything they fear for their own incumbency: armed Shiite movements inside countries where mostly Sunni Muslim Arabs dominated public life; popular resistance movements that do battle according to their own strategic calculations; Iranian meddling in Arab affairs; and, Arab mass movements that connect with compatriots across the region in their common opposition to and defiance of conservative Arabs, Israel and the US itself.

    So at some levels it is understandable why so many people in the region and abroad are making a lot of noise about the Iranian president’s visit to Lebanon. At another level, though, that of substance vs. symbolism, this is a pretty routine event that does not necessarily break new ground, but mainly reflects and emphasizes existing political realities that generate frenzied, nearly hysterical, reactions on both sides.

    Rami KHOURI
    The Daily Star

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