Ahmadinejad Offers Salvation for Lebanon's Downtrodden

Among the mug shots of revered politicians, dead and alive, which clutter Lebanon's buildings and highways, one smiling face loomed large last week over all.

Iranian President Mahmood Ahmadinejad's visit to Beirut was promoted as the arrival of an international superstar. But for the country's large Shiite contingent, the leader's presence promised something far weightier.

Everyone has an opinion, firmly held and unapologetically voiced, on how to solve the country's political quandary; for many, the solution now amounts to a single, affectionate moniker: "Nejad."

Whatever the international community made of Ahmadinejad's state visit, the country's Shiites gave the trip near-unanimous support. The Iranian President wasn't just lauded upon arrival; he was virtually deified, his mere presence offering salvation to the downtrodden.

At two separate rallies, tens of thousands supporters uttered an emphatic "Khosh Ameded," ("Welcome" in Ahmadinejad's native Farsi), Iranian and Hezbollah flags vastly outnumbering Lebanese in a demonstration of appreciation for all his regime has provided for the country.

However underwhelming an orator the Iranian President proved to be, his place in the hearts of many southerners was solidified by the visit. The significance of Bint Jbeil as the venue for a keynote rally was not lost on those in attendance, as up to 90 percent of the town was razed by Israeli bombardment during the 2006 War.

The town today boasts newly rebuilt shopping centers, cloistered thoroughfares and grandiose mosques. This renaissance simply could not have happened without Iranian money.

Among those afforded seats and VIP views at Ahmadinejad's speeches, perched alongside relatives of Hezbollah martyrs, were members of The Iranian Committee for the Reconstruction of Lebanon. The juxtaposition demonstrated the esteem in which Iranian-backed capacity building organizations are held by Hezbollah and fellow Shiites Amal Movement, ensuring that the families of those who gave their lives could continue living in functioning environs.

The appearance of Iran's leader barely two miles from Israel served not only as a show of defiance to those who decried the trip as provocative, but also demonstrated his country's indelible ties with Lebanon. Well, parts of it, at least.

For behind the haze of rhetoric trumpeting Iranian support for the entire country, the trip and its itinerary were precise in their target audience. Those who oppose Tehran's influence in Lebanon were never likely to sit through Ahmadinejad's roving speeches; those who welcome it already constituted the converted.

Ahmadinejad took to the stage following an introduction by Hezbollah MP Mohammad Raad, whose list of thanked dignitaries betrayed Lebanon's political rifts; the mention of Mousa al-Sadr -- the vanished imam who fought for better Shiite rights three decades ago -- drew rapturous applause but Prime Minister Saad Hariri's name was roundly booed. Diverging reactions were as much a symptom of Lebanon's confessionalized politicians only providing for their personal supporters as they were a giveaway of the country's religious vicissitudes.

Lebanon's Shiites share in Iran's state religion, a common bond that is for many far stronger than the notion of a united nation state, cobbled together under a flag and anthem and defined via lines on a map. For most Shiites, Ahmadinejad is strong, devout and, perhaps most importantly, ready to support the resistance to Israeli aggression. Hariri might be a democratically elected member of parliament, but Hezbollah and Amal voters didn't put him there. In turn, he is unlikely to seek improvement of the Shiite situation.

Many who came to see Ahmadinejad still feel neglected by their Government. The south's regeneration has lagged, stymied by a mixture of budgetary mismanagement and political infighting and the sentiment that Iran has provided southern residents with greater help than domestic and Arab institutions remains widely held.

Iran's military maintenance of Hezbollah is no less secret than the party's refusal to play ball over its increasing arsenal, in contravention of UN resolutions and defiance of Lebanon's moribund National Dialogue sessions. It is therefore not surprising that several sections of the country's political patchwork oppose Iranian influence. Nor is it unexpected that a people who have been underrepresented in and neglected by successive governments should accept wholeheartedly offers of help from Tehran.