Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shakes hands with Lebanese President Michel Suleiman at the Lebanese presidential palace east of Beirut on Wednesday Oct. 13, 2010. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
(CNSNews.com) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s provocative visit to Lebanon made headlines for a second day Thursday, but less attention has been given to the warm reception he received from Lebanese leaders and groups beyond Hezbollah.
While the visit by Hezbollah’s key sponsor drew the expected feverish response from its constituency, Ahmadinejad also received expressions of support from top leaders including President Michel Suleiman and parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri, both of whom hosted events in the Iranian’s honor.
Suleiman, a Maronite Catholic, and Berri, leader of the Shi’ite Amal movement, both praised Tehran for its support for “the Resistance” (Hezbollah) and Suleiman said he discussed with Ahmadinejad the need to differentiate between “international terrorism” and “the Resistance.”
Berri said Hezbollah “would not have gone on performing its mission in liberating our land had it not been for Iran’s help” and said Iranian aid did not just benefit Shi’ites but Arabs and Palestinians too.
He also thanked Ahmadinejad for offering to arm the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).
Tehran’s recent offer of aid for the LAF came after U.S. lawmakers called for the suspension of U.S. assistance to the army, following a deadly cross-border shooting triggered when LAF soldiers opened fire on Israel troops. Suleiman announced the signing of a series of bilateral agreements with his Iranian counterpart, in the economic, trade, environmental and energy fields.
No announcement was made regarding military cooperation, although Lebanon’s Ad Diyar newspaper reported that LAF Commander Gen. Jean Kahwaji participated in at least one meeting Wednesday with Ahmadinejad.
“Iran and resistance movements in the region … might be welcoming Lebanon’s army to the club of the resistance bloc,” an item on Hezbollah’s Web site commented Thursday.
Prime Minister Saad Hariri, a Sunni who enjoys the support of the U.S. government, hosted a luncheon banquet for Ahmadinejad attended by politicians across the Lebanese political spectrum.
Hariri and Ahmadinejad also held talks, during which the Lebanese premier was quoted as calling for “excellent” bilateral relations to be further strengthened.
“Expansion of cooperation between countries of the region will isolate the enemies,” Iran Daily quoted Hariri as telling Ahmadinejad.
Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, described the meeting as “positive.”
Roknabadi told reporters afterwards the two had discussed “local, regional, and international developments” and confirmed these had included the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which is investigating the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father and former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
Holding babies and waving Iranian and Lebanese flags, Lebanese welcome Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the south of the country on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
Hezbollah and Syria – both Iranian allies – have been implicated in the killing and there are concerns that Hezbollah could bring down Lebanon’s fragile government if STL prosecutors go ahead with indictments against its members in the coming weeks.
Iran has echoed the Hezbollah and Syrian comments denigrating the U.N.-mandated tribunal as a “Zionist” plot, but Roknabadi said that during the Hariri-Ahmadinejad talks Iran had stressed that the STL was an internal Lebanese affair.
(Earlier, Ahmadinejad launched a veiled attack on the STL, telling a welcome rally of Hezbollah supporters in southern Beirut that “friends” were being “framed” for the assassination in a bid to “sow strife and conflict.”)
Asked about the offers of help for the LAF, the ambassador said merely that Iran was ready to provide assistance to Lebanon on all levels.
Ahmadinejad did not meet publicly with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah – who seldom appears in public for security reasons – but after the visit ended Iran’s IRNA news agency reported Friday that the two had met behind closed doors at the Iranian Embassy.
Nasrallah addressed the welcome rally by videolink, and echoed Ahmadinejad’s remarks that Israel would “cease to exist.”
“The Zionist regime will continue its downfall and no power can save it because of the resistance in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and the rest of the region,” Nasrallah said.
The red-carpet treatment for Ahmadinejad extended to the awarding of an honorary doctorate in political science from the Lebanese University. In a speech to throngs of students and staff he defended Iran’s nuclear program and suggested that Lebanon also pursue nuclear energy technology.
‘An extension of mullahs’ regime’
A rare jarring note came from Mustapha Alloush, a member of Hariri’s Future movement, who told a Kuwaiti newspaper that Ahmadinejad’s visit was provocative and left many Lebanese uneasy.
Referring to Iran’s longstanding sponsorship of Hezbollah, Alloush said, “a state that harbors good intentions towards assisting the Lebanese state does not build relations with one portion of its population with disregard of the state and diplomatic channels.”
The visit has been watched warily by Lebanon’s southern neighbor, Israel, which Iranian-armed Hezbollah provoked into a month-long war in 2006 by launching a cross-border raid, killing eight Israeli soldiers and kidnapping two others.
Lebanese Army soldiers stand under an Iranian flag as they secure the area where Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended a rally organized by Hezbollah in the southern border town of Bint Jbeil on Thursday Oct. 14, 2010. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)
Ahmadinejad Thursday visited Hezbollah’s stronghold in the south of the country and told cheering supporters in Bint Jbeil, a town just two miles from the Lebanese-Israeli border, and that Israel “will eventually disappear.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Lebanon was turning into an “extension” of the Tehran regime. He called the development “a tragedy for Lebanon,” adding that “Israel knows how to defend itself.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Ahmadinejad visit, calling the situation in Lebanon “volatile.”
“Lebanon itself has constructed this very delicate balance over the years where the Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim populations and the Christian populations try to accommodate each other so that each can live in peace,” she told ABC News during a visit to Brussels Thursday.
“So this man coming and being so volatile and using language that is inflammatory is just true to form.”
Clinton did not say anything about the reception given to the Iranian by Lebanese leaders, including Suleiman, with whom she held talks in New York last month.
State Department spokesman Philip Crowley reiterated that the U.S. was “committed to building up institutions of government within Lebanon, including support for the Lebanese military.”