BEIRUT –Lebanon has spent weeks preparing for a very important guest. On street corners throughout Beirut, posters featuring the smiling face of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad welcomed him to the city in both Arabic and Farsi. Those who might have disrupted the feel-good atmosphere were silenced: Lebanese authorities forced a film festival to postpone the showing of a documentary about the protests following Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election campaign until after the president's visit. The roads linking the airport to the presidential palace and Hezbollah's stronghold in Beirut's southern suburbs are bursting with Iranian flags.
If Ahmadinejad came to Beirut to plant the Iranian flag in Lebanese soil, there was little need: His allies had already done it for him. Still, the Iranian president, who referred to Lebanon as "the focus point of resistance" before departing on his first official state visit to Lebanon, did not miss the opportunity to emphasize the links between the two countries. "The Iranian nation will always stand beside the Lebanese nation and will never abandon them," he said in Lebanon on Oct. 13. "We will surely help the Lebanese nation against animosities, mainly staged by the Zionist regime."
Despite this superficial display of bonhomie, Lebanese citizens are deeply divided over the Iranian president's visit, which comes at a moment of high tension for the country. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, established to investigate the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, is increasingly being assailed by those opposed to the investigation; Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah referred to it this summer as an "Israeli project."
With Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik, refusing to disavow the tribunal, Hezbollah is hoping to use Iran's outspoken support as leverage to undermine the tribunal. Many fear that Hezbollah, which is part of Lebanon's unity government, will seize on the momentum from Ahmadinejad's visit to coerce Hariri to give in to its demands. If he refuses, the Party of God could organize street protests designed to topple the government and replace Hariri with a more pliant prime minister.
So the reception for Ahmadinejad was arranged not only because the Lebanese wanted to be good hosts, but as a statement by Hezbollah and its ally, the predominantly Shiite Amal Movement, of their political weight. Hezbollah and Amal lobbied thousands of their supporters to stand for hours on both sides of the airport road to welcome the Iranian president upon his arrival -- a show of allegiance to Iran, which supported Hezbollah in its July 2006 war against Israel and helped rebuild towns and villages after the conflict.