Ahmadinejad in Lebanon

While the Iranian president’s visit to Southern Lebanon is being portrayed in the Western media largely in terms of an act of provocation directed at Israel by an antagonist and intruding regional power, the historical ties between that part of Lebanon and Iran span centuries.

Nicholas Blanford writes:

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tours Lebanon’s border with Israel today, he may pause a moment to consider that Iran owes its existence as a Shiite nation to the ancestors of those living in these rural hilltop villages.

Iran wasn’t always the center of Shiite scholarship

In the early 16th century, the center for Shiite scholarship was in an area known as Jabal Amil, a rugged hill country that conforms closely to the geographical perimeters of modern-day south Lebanon. When Shah Ismael I, the Safavid ruler of Iran, introduced Shiism as the state religion in the 16th century, he turned to the scholars of Jabal Amil to help promulgate the new faith.

Dozens of scholars traveled to Iran, settling there, marrying, learning Persian, and involving themselves in the rivalries and intrigues of the Safavid court. It was the beginning of a linkage of families and learning between two Shiite communities lying at opposite ends of the Middle East that remains today.

Reports that Ahmadinejad received a hero’s welcome are put in perspective by Nussaibah Younis, who writes:

The support that Ahmadinejad enjoys in Lebanon’s Shia heartlands can be compared to the support that a corporate sponsor might expect from Manchester United fans: bored gratitude. The biggest cheer that Ahmadinejad’s speech managed to raise out of the crowd came when he thanked Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, as a “dear warrior and scholar”.

Nasrallah was the real star of the show. Rumours that he might appear in person at the rally drew large expectant crowds. Though there was a sigh of disappointment when Nasrallah only appeared via video link, the forceful and impassioned clarity with which he spoke whipped the crowd into a flag-waving and slogan-chanting frenzy. Nasrallah spoke mindfully of his larger audience in Lebanon, and tried the novel approach of presenting Iran’s foreign policy as “unifying”. He praised Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, for issuing a fatwa forbidding Muslims to react to the Qur’an burning-fiasco in the US with “similar acts”, claiming that Iran was acting in the best interests of Christian-Muslim unity.

He also congratulated the Iranian cleric for his handling of a highly controversial London conference in which a little-known Shia activist disparaged Aisha, the wife of the prophet Muhammad, who is highly revered by Sunnis but considered a traitor by many Shias. Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei had responded with a statement forbidding insulting talk about the wives of the prophet, thereby – according to Nasrallah – acting as a force for unity between Sunnis and Shias.

Many Lebanese would have a lot to say about claims that Iran is a “unifying force in the region”, but the speech did make clear that Nasrallah’s crowd appeal is unmatched and that his power among many Shias does not need to be enforced by Iran. If anything, Hezbollah deftly staged a welcome for Ahmadinejad designed to encourage the Iranians to dig deeper and give more generously to Hezbollah’s cause.

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  1. I notice that Kaveh L Afrasiabi’s article in Asia Times emphasises Ahmadinejad’s Lebanon trip as somewhat different. “First, he wants to make sure that there is no attempt to weaken Hezbollah because of the (America instituted, UN) Hariri investigation.”
    Secondly he is strengthening ties with the Arab states by promoting ‘sustainable security’ for Lebanon in the face of Israeli threats — particularly states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt — that recently established an air link with Iran.
    There is more than symbolic stone throwing in the visit.