Ahmadinejad to visit Lebanon

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make his first ever visit to Lebanon as Iran's president after Ramadan, pledging support in the face of any Israeli "aggression".

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) greets Lebanese Foreign Minister Ali al-Shami prior to a meeting in Tehran on August 8, 2010, as the latter begins an official visit to Iran. AFP PHOTO/STR *** Local Caption ***  155614-01-08.jpg
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TEHRAN // Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make his first ever visit to Lebanon as Iran's president after Ramadan, officials in Tehran said, as the Islamic republic pledged to support both Beirut and Damascus in the face of any Israeli "aggression".

The announcement of Mr Ahmadinejad's visit followed a key summit in Beirut late last month with the leaders of Lebanon, Syria and Saudi Arabia. "The government and people of the Islamic Republic will fully stand by the side of the governments and the peoples of Lebanon and Syria and provide any possible assistance that our brothers may request," Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucher Mottaki said in making the announcement on Sunday during a news conference with his visiting Lebanese counterpart, Ali al Shami.

Mr Ahmadinejad, who has been invited by his Lebanese counterpart Michel Suleiman, was supposed to visit Beirut before August 11 with a 70-member delegation, but the leaders agreed last month to postpone the event. The Iranian president hailed the Beirut talks as a sign of regional unity and solidarity in the region that had strengthened solidarity against Israel and its supporters. "The trilateral meeting upset the plans of the Zionist enemy," Mr Ahmadinejad on Sunday.

Saudi's King Abdullah and Syria's president Bashar al Assad - both very rare travellers - attended the mini-Arab summit in Beirut on July 30. The meeting was primarily aimed at defusing tensions in Lebanon ignited by reports that Hizbollah, the Shiite movement, would be implicated in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister. Hardliners in Tehran were keen to play down any suggestion that the Islamic republic will be disadvantaged by diplomatic moves on Lebanon by the Arab world. Iran's pro-government media cast the summit as a victory for Iran and Hizbollah, its ally in Lebanon.

Some analysts in Tehran, however, saw Iran's failure to participate in the summit as a sign of their government's inefficient foreign policy. Iran's absence was "very marked considering the close friendship of Syria and President Bashar al Assad with Iran", said Mohammad Sadr, Iran's former deputy foreign minister for Arab and African Affairs, writing in Iran Diplomacy, a reformist analytical website.

This was all the more glaring given "the history of friendship of King Abdullah with Iran, particularly during Mr Khatami's presidency, the influence that Iran has in Middle Eastern and Lebanese issues, and the friendship between Iran and Hizbollah and other Lebanese groups such as the Sunnis and Christians". "It will be a big cause of concern if it is true that the joint visit of King Abdullah and Bashar al Assad was meant to separate Syria and [Mr] al Assad from Iran."

The announcement of Mr Ahmadinejad's visit next month was overshadowed in Beirut by anticipation over a press conference last night at which the Hizbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah was expected to offer evidence that Israel assassinated Mr Hariri. Some Lebanese analysts, particularly among supporters of the anti-Hizbollah March 14 Alliance, have interpreted Mr al Assad's summit appearance and the absence of Iranian and Hizbollah officials, as a sign of strains in the relationship between Syria, Iran and Hizbollah.

In that light Mr Ahmadinejad's arrival is being viewed in Lebanon as a chance to shore up Iran's allegiance for Hizbollah. "He is coming to show support for Hizbollah, for the whole axis, but for Hizbollah in particular," said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for the March 14 affiliated newspaper An Nahar. "It is a big deal." msinaiee@thenational.ae mtheodoulou@thenational.ae