A Twisted Kind of Entertainment
by GARETH SMYTH
10 Oct 2010 16:38
In 2010, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may draw larger crowds, especially when he heads for south Lebanon to the towns and villages pulverized in 2006 when Israel killed around 1,100 people, mainly civilians, in supposed pursuit of two soldiers captured in a border skirmish.
A warm welcome for an Iranian president in part reflects cultural and religious links going back beyond 500 years when the Safavid dynasty brought Lebanese holy men from Jabal Amel, south Lebanon, to convert Iran from Sunni Islam to Shiism.
On the other hand, both America and Israel have condemned the visit as provocative, and media outlets will be on alert for Mr. Ahmadinejad going to the Fatima gate and -- as tourists often do -- throwing a stone at the metal grill of the nearby Israeli military post.
In a column in Al Safir on Friday, October 8, Sateh Noureddin, managing editor of the Shia-inclined Lebanese daily, tried to inject proportion. "The concerns over the visit are totally unjustified. The Lebanese public is expecting entertainment from President Ahmadinejad, especially when he talks about the elimination of Israel, the disintegration of America and the collapse of capitalism."
Despite the prospect of entertainment, Mr. Noureddin noted that the regional situation is far more fragile than back in 2003. "It is true that the Americans and Israelis fear that a stone thrown by President Ahmadinejad from Lebanese territory on Israeli positions might start a war," he wrote. "But these fears can be justified only by the assumption that the war decision has actually been taken and is just waiting for the pretext of throwing an Iranian stone."
Mr. Khatami didn't visit the Fatima gate in 2003, and probably would not have thrown a stone if he had. More importantly, in 2003 Iran extended feelers towards the U.S. over a "grand bargain" and its foreign policy was handled by pragmatists like Hassan Rowhani, Sadegh Kharrazi, Kamal Kharrazi and Mohammad-Javad Zarif.
Mr. Ahmadinejad will express the same support for Hezbollah as Mr. Khatami back in 2003, but the political shift towards the fundamentalists, or "principle-ists" in Tehran, has made Iran far more assertive. For the principle-ists, conservatives, Israel is a paper tiger defeated by Hezbollah in 2000 and 2006 and even by Hamas in Gaza in 2008-09.
When Lebanese troops shot and killed an Israeli officer on the border in August as Israeli soldiers cut down trees in front of a surveillance camera, leading officials in Tehran hailed Israel's lack of widespread response (they merely killed two soldiers and a journalist) as weakness.
"The power of resistance and unity of the Lebanese Army does not let the Zionist regime even cut down a tree," said Saeed Jalili, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. "Earlier, the Zionist regime could advance to the borders of Beirut fearlessly. Today the Zionist army gets a strong response from Islamic resistance for cutting a tree near the border."
July's reconciliation between Syria and Saudi Arabia in a Beirut summit marked -- wrote analyst Sadollah Zarei in Kayhan -- Saudi recognition of "a reality in the region called resistance," so making Iran "the winner number one."
This is not what American officials foresaw in 2005 when the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri sparked the "cedar revolution" and the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. Indeed many U.S. neo-conservatives, and some right-wing Lebanese Christians, predicted the demise not just of Syria, but of Hezbollah and Iran's regional influence. Their glee seemed to compensate for disappointment over the 2003 Iraq invasion, which they had claimed would transform the Middle East.
Lebanon itself is far more fractious in 2010 than in 2003, a drier and more unstable kindling. Part of the explanation is the murder of Mr. Hariri and the long-running, politicized, and inconclusive UN special tribunal on Lebanon (STL), which is now rumoured to implicate members of Hezbollah in Mr. Hariri's killing.
In a deeply pessimistic commentary in the English-language Daily Star on Thursday, the Lebanese lawyer and intellectual Chibli Mallat noted that "large-scale violence is round the corner, and sectarian Sunni-Shiite street confrontations are becoming a recurrent and spiraling pattern in Beirut and other Lebanese cities".
Mr. Mallat, a long-term advocate of international justice who indicted Ariel Sharon over the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla camps of Beirut, argued that the delays and secrecy of the STL had brought Lebanon to "a point where the country is damned if it will, and damned if it won't."
But in arguing that the tribunal should continue, Mr. Mallat wrote: "Abandoning the STL will leave raw violence as guide, domestically and regionally. So dramatic is the tension in the Middle East that no one will be spared, with sectarian violence bound to spread to the street in Damascus, and a failed state in Lebanon drawing in Israel and Iran into direct confrontation."
This is bleak, but is it alarmist? Wider international developments -- including the replacement of a Sunni-led order in Iraq by a government led by allies of Tehran - have certainly unsettled the region and put Lebanon's sectarian system under strain. In the mainly Sunni northern city of Tripoli, banners are up saying (to Mr. Ahmadinejad) "You are not welcome in Lebanon" and "No to wilayat al-faqih" (the Shia political system in Iran).
Salafi militants, encouraged by leading Saudi clerics, have become more active and violent across the region since 2003. Ain el Helweh, the largest Palestinian camp in Lebanon, has inclined strongly to groups who reject the nationalism of Fatah and Hamas.
Even in Iran, Jundallah, a well-organised Baluchi-based group, has carried out suicide bombings and beheadings. As if to demonstrate its resilience after the execution of its leader Abdol-Malek Rigi this year, Jundallah on Friday claimed to have captured a technician from Iran's nuclear facility at Esfahan.
An even more serious shift towards violence may be massive arms build-up in the Persian Gulf where Sunni-led Arab states are, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Washington-based Center for Strategic & International Studies, outspending Iran on weapons by ten to one.
Various U.S. reports put proposed U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia at $30bn-$60bn. According to the Financial Times, Arab Gulf states have signed deals worth $122.8bn for the next four years with U.S. companies (the newspaper, which bases its regional office in Abu Dhabi, linked the sales to fears over Iran's "widening political and military influence").
While such sales are good business for U.S. arms companies, especially Boeing, and offer tidy commissions for Gulf middle men, some of whom are royals, they are making the Persian Gulf one of the world's most militarized regions.
But the largest arsenal, as the Lebanese well know, is Israel's. The Israeli cabinet was reported last month to have approved spending $2.75bn on 35 F-35 stealth fighters, which are more sophisticated than the F-15s reportedly heading to Saudi Arabia and therefore likely to offset any Israeli concerns about the Saudi deal.
Cue Ahmadinejad at the Fatima gate. It is a twisted form of entertainment that has such deadly potential.
Gareth Smyth was Tehran bureau chief for the Financial Times, and has lived in Beirut for more than ten years.
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