Qana — He came, he saw, he conquered. As he watched the Iranian President blow kisses to cleaning workers at Beirut’s airport during his departure for Iran early this morning, a Lebanese Christian historian commented “This Persian’s glory at the moment is arguably greater than Caesar’s following Rome’s second conquest of Britain”.
And the Iranian president did indeed throw much more than a stone at US-Israel projects for Lebanon, perhaps energized by the adoring public he encountered.
A grateful nation extended to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad what one Bishop claimed was the greatest outpouring of popular support on the streets, all along this country’s sectarian divide, that the Republic of Lebanon has ever witnessed including the May 10, 1997 visit of Pope John Paul II.
An important reason for the outpouring of popular support was the quarter century of Iranian assistance to Lebanon for social projects, and for rebuilding much of Lebanon following the 1993, 1996 and 2006 Israeli aggressions. Massive aid that was detailed by Hezbollah’s Secretary-General in a recent speech and the amount of which is estimated to be in excess of one billion dollars.
Iran’s President is widely believed in the diplomatic community here to have promoted sectarian unity in Lebanon, calmed the current political atmosphere, and delivered on offers of more desperately needed economic projects via 17 bilateral agreements. A particularly appreciated offer throughout Lebanon is Iran’s major pledge of an electrical complex that will deliver 7 times Lebanon’s current power supply, which in 2010 still sees power cuts throughout Lebanon. The current deficiencies range from 3 hours to 12 hours daily power cuts everywhere in Lebanon plus total blackouts for days at a time in some areas. Iran’s President is widely believed to have achieved a major advancement for Lebanese stability, sovereignty, and independence.
The throngs were cheering, waving, and shouting their admiration. Local media used descriptive words like “rock star, rapturous, massive affection,” to describe his reception.
Wretched Palestinian refugees, tightly shoe horned into Lebanon’s squalid UN camps, denied even the most elementary civil rights by an apathetic international community and some of the local sects, could be seen along the route. Many with eyes moistened, perhaps by Nakba memories and tears of hope for the early liberation of their sacred Palestine and the full exercise of their internationally mandated and inalienable Right of Return to their homes.
Refugees, plenty of them illegal, Iraqis, Afghans, Kurds and others, urging the expulsion of occupation forces from their countries and the restoration of their former lives, waved and blew kisses. Lebanese domestic ‘guest/slave workers’ from Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Sudan, Philippines, Bangladesh, and other countries could be seen in the crowds along with Syrian construction workers. Also a sprinkling of Stendhal “Le Rouge et le Noir” characters who, seeking secure advancement in life, have fixed themselves to one or the other, both requiring that they be seen publicly at such an important event.
Close to 750,000 people, or approximately one quarter of the total population of Lebanon, of all ages and stations in life, appeared at the main road from Beirut’s airport and at other events during an intense two-day frenetic series of appearances. Red, green and yellow rose petals, the colors of Iran’s flag, greeted Lebanon’s guest. Due to time constraints, some events for which much preparation had been made were “postponed”, including an “American Town Hall Meeting with President Ahmadinejad.” It was to include 15 Americans currently in Lebanon as academics, business people, students, housewives, and NGO’s, in a much anticipated US political campaign type format with Iran’s President joining an informal dialogue with his interlocutors.
At Al Raya Athletic field in South Beirut, often used for popular Hezbollah events, an estimated 150, 000 people crowded onto just the main field boundaries, one Hezbollah source reporting that it was the largest gathering inside the field ever seen. Thousands of other attendees spilled onto the side streets where huge TV screens has been set up, and vendors hocked roasted ears of corn, boiled balila beans, kaak asrounye (baked bread with filling) various treats, including chips, cotton candy and soft drinks. Driving around the area on the mercifully cool autumn evening by motorbike, one could see thousands more gathered at several dozen Dahiyeh outdoor cafes and store front shops where families and friends gathered to watch on the proprietors’ outdoor TV screens. Some of the adults smoked arguila water pipes and little kids played, happy to be allowed to stay up late while teenagers appeared contented to get a day off from school and an evening without homework.
Lebanese and Iranian flags were fluttering everywhere without huge numbers of Hezbollah flags displayed in keeping with the message that this was an official state visit. President Ahmadinejad of Iran was invited by President Michel Suleiman of Lebanon on behalf of every Lebanese, including the majority of Lebanese who live in the Diaspora. Deployments of Suleiman’s Presidential guards were the ones seen to be providing security for Iran’s president with Hezbollah security largely out of site, except for occasional fleeting glimpse of Hezbollah sharpshooters in windows throughout the assembly area. They also surfaced quickly if a dispute or argument flared up in the packed crowds. In these few cases a representative of Hezbollah would apologize for the crowded conditions and ask for patience and understanding during the event.
At one stop near the blue line in South Lebanon he smiled broadly, winked to the media contingent and adoring villagers surrounding him and, gazing deep into occupied Palestine, as if posing for a Marlboro Country billboard advertisement, Iran’s charismatic President made many a heart flutter when he spoke softly, almost whispering to some villages, and with a twinkle in his eye, as if someone were eavesdropping: “Now isn’t this one fine view?”, as he discretely pointed. “I like it over there, don’t you?”
Almost everyone laughed at his joke.
A young lady wearing a full length black Chador (a women wearing one is called a ‘Chadori’ in Persian and Lebanese resistance culture) , with some of her school mates in tow who were volunteering as hostesses and Farsi, Arabic, and English interpreters, offered arriving American guests enthusiastic greetings: “Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s new border with Palestine!”
Almost everyone laughed at her joke.
Then, exuding an easy self confidence and speaking American accented English while obviously having a good time, the student noticed one seemingly horror-struck humorless lady wearing a light brown business suit and heels who a security guy later confided was suspected of being a US Embassy plant. “Just teasing”, she assured the woman, as she offered her hand in friendship to the flinching guest who glared uneasily at the hostesses’ hand as if it held a dead rat or might bite hers. “Why are you Americans so serious?” the loquacious hostess smiled. “Do you agree Iran and America are destined to be good friends after our countries are finished with this problem?”, and she gestured with her head south toward Tel Aviv.
“Please tell me what do Americans think? I read a few days ago in preparation for my work today — I should not say work, it’s really fun — a report that ninety percent of Americans in a recent poll said they did not favor attacking Iran unless Iran attacks Israel first. This is very good news because I am sure Iran, unlike Israel’s record, will never be the first to start a war. Iran will retaliate naturally and that could mean World War III, but there will be no war involving Iran unless Iran, Syria, or Lebanon is attacked. We in the Resistance Alliance are ‘one for all and all for one’ but we really want to be friends with the American people.” And she offered the woman a small ribbon-tied, party wrapped, cellophane pouch with Iranian pistachios and candy attached to a small Iranian flag. “No thanks”, the American answered as she walked away.
The American Embassy warned Americans to avoid Ahmadinejad’s “provocative and potentially dangerous visit because the Lebanese government cannot protect US Citizens.” Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, complained to the pan-Arab Al-Hayat on October 13: “Why is the Iranian president organizing activities that might spark tension? We are taking steps to lower tension while Ahmadinejad is doing the opposite.”
Nevertheless, there were plenty of Yanks in attendance at all of Ahmadinejad’s appearances.
During his Qana visit, the Hezbollah Parliamentary delegation, friends with many Americans here, must have tipped off the Iranian President that Americans were sitting near them. The reason for this hunch is that he could not have been more gracious, making frequent eye contact, touching his forehead as a greeting and salute, and thanking them for coming. He assured the American guests that eventually Iran and America will be good friends and perhaps allies.
Shortly before the Iranian President’s 35 car convoy carrying his delegation and various Lebanese officials arrived at Qana, his fourth largest gathering, an Israeli Air Force MRPV circled lazily yet provocatively above the site of the 1996 Qana massacre. Some in the more than 15,000 person crowd pointed skyward, some kids squealing “Israel!” From their experience, “Qanains”, as Ali, who grew up in this village, explained some locals call themselves, were able to give foreigners fairly precise details of the MRPV’s specs and capabilities. This Israeli provocation ended, according to a Hezbollah security source, when the MRPV’s controllers realized that a Resistance laser guided missile had locked on to the uninvited intruder. The same source divulged that Hezbollah did not intend to shoot it down and would only monitor the threat. This was because the Resistance did not want to mar the Iranian Presidents tour. In addition, he explained, explained that Lebanon’s resistance wanted to maintain “tactical and strategic ambiguity” concerning its array of anti-aircraft weapons until the moment war comes.
Lebanon’s people, army, and resistance ignored provocations from this country’s southern enemy, including assassination threats like the one made by the Nakba-denying Knesset member Aryeh Eldad; more blustering from Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, and PM Netanyahu; the beefing up of Israeli forces along the blue line; efforts to crack Hezbollah communications and send SMS threats via hacked mobile phones; conducting a chorus of US officials in childish criticisms of the visit; and Israeli spokesmen like Mark Regev and political extremists in Congress issuing threats.
Israeli warplanes on Friday carried out intensive, mock air raids over south Lebanon as if to send the message, “He is gone but we are still here!” The state-run National News Agency said Israeli jets staged mock air raids at medium attitude over Nabatiyeh, Iqlim al-Tuffah, Marjayoun, Khiam and Arqoub.
Another signature Israeli taunt during Iran’s Presidents visit was the launching of hundreds of blue and white balloons to catch the air current north to Bint Jbeil when Ahmadinejad was appearing. Some with insults written on them by children with magic markers and others allegedly smeared with human feces, the spreading of the latter being an IDF insult employed over the past 45 years of incursions into Lebanon and Palestine when during occupations of Lebanese and Palestinian homes some Israeli soldiers create what they call “poop art” on walls, mattresses and other surfaces.
Analysts will write about Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s historic visit for months to come and what the visit means for the two countries, for the question of Palestine, strategic alignments in the region, and consequences for China, Russia and the wider international community.
A perhaps too early, road-weary, sleep-deprived photo snap of his visit’s effects would warrant the following brief and tentative evacuation, as Lebanon’s guest has just departed Beirut airport to return to his country. His midnight departure followed a visit at the Iranian Embassy with Hassan Nassrallah during which the Hezbollah Secretary-General gave the Iranian President an Israeli rifle taken from an Israeli soldier during the July 2006 war.
Ahmadinejad’s visit achieved more than a symbolic consecration of a new local and regional reality that encompasses a third way, separate from the US-Israel-Saudi or Syrian path. Some here think we are witnessing a new era of growing and uncompromising Resistance to Israel’s brutal occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine as well as America’s occupation and exploitation of Arab natural resources. Some analysts are speaking about a six member Axis of Resistance led by Iran and Turkey and including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Lebanon that is the rising regional power.
What seems quite evident is that Iran’s President and the large delegation of business people comprising his entourage have opened a new era of bilateral relations between the two countries. His positive personal and political connections with virtually all Lebanon’s leaders, including compliments from rightist Christian politicians including Samir Geagea, will likely lead to big joint economic projects, the Iranian arming of the Lebanese Armed Forces, and strategic political cooperation, starting now.