Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran arrived for a state visit in Lebanon on Wednesday. Much attention has been given to the wild greeting he has received, and his meeting with the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and president, Michel Suleiman, announcing a number of bilateral agreements. While these events are true, when presented in context of a number of trends in global affairs, they no longer portray an image of Ahmadinejad as a popular figure in the Middle East, but an illegitimate politician desperately reaching for anything to hold on to power.
The first element of this context has to do with Iran's growing isolation in the world. It is true that ever since Ahmadinejad took office in 2005 and raised alarm with his provocative speeches about Israel, the United States and European Union countries have grown concerned about Iran's nuclear program. Nonetheless, Iran could always count on two veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council -- the body that has the authority to impose transnational sanctions on Iran -- Russia and China to never fully get on board with tough sanctions because of those countries' self-interests to keep on good terms with the regime. These ties became stronger because of the escalation that was beginning to take form between Russia and the United States toward the end of Bush's presidency. However, when Obama became president, he was able to drastically improve relations with Russia and convince that nation to support wide-ranging sanctions after he showed good-faith effort to give the Iranian regime the opportunity to clear up questions about its nuclear program through negotiations and peaceful means.
President Obama also engaged in a number of highly intelligent and coordinated actions -- including the meeting with Dalai Lama, weapons deal with Taiwan and Secretary Clinton's open criticism of China for Internet censorship -- to build up pressure in China, leading that country to support the sanctions as well.
But what's important to note is that when it comes to Russia, one of Iran's longest standing allies, sanctions are not the only arena on which they have recently clashed with Iran. Much love seems to have been lost between the two countries. Ahmadinejad and Medvedev have gotten into a number of spats throughout the year. And recently, Russia canceled plans to sell a series of so-called "S-300 Missile Defense Systems" to Iran that were much and long sought by the regime. Adding insult to injury, Russia and Israel have just reached a military agreement through which Israel will help Russia modernize its military, strengthening ties between the two countries. The deterioration between the two countries have gotten to the point that Medvedev prohibited Russian banks from doing business with Iran, demonstrating his intention to not just verbally support sanctions on Iran, but help in their enforcement.
While Iran's international isolation has received some coverage, Ahmadinejad's growing isolation at home has not. A number of events have resulted in a number of fractures between Ahmadinejad and clerics, and also Majles, Iran's representative body. Ahmadinejad's chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei -- whom Ahmadinejad originally sought to be his vice president only to be overridden by the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei -- recently gave a speech in which he spoke about the "Iranian identity." This sparked major conflict with the clerics in Iran who, ideologically, do not consider identity within the context of Iranian borders but rather through the lens of religions, and are more interested in defining the identity of Iranians in Islamic terms. In the spat that followed, Ahmadinejad sided with Mashaei, whose daughter is married to Ahmadinejad's son, leading to a growing divide between him and the clerical establishment.
And Ahmadinejad escalated a number of long-standing disagreements with the Majles by saying during a recent interview that unlike what Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the regime, intended, the Majles is no longer the highest decision-making body, because Khomeini's intention was in the context of the time when Iran had a prime minister rather than a president. Head of Majles, Ali Larijani and other Majles members reacted harshly to Ahmadinejad's comment, and a prominent conservative representative lawmaker from Tehran, Mohammad Reza Bahonar, called Ahmadinejad delusional and remarkably said that Majles even has the power to remove him from presidency for incompetence.
This isolation at home and abroad brings us to Ahmadinejad's trip to Lebanon. Those who believe Iran could ever play a productive role in bringing peace to the Middle East need to understand that opposition to Israel is a core part of the Iranian regime's identity. So the Iranian regime has been highly concerned about the ongoing negotiations between President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and has begun to do everything possible to derail the process. But even Palestinians are no longer willing to allow Ahmadinejad and Khamenei to use them as a tool to divert attention from their own criminalities. When Ahmadinejad criticized Abbas for engaging in negotiations, Mahmoud Abbas issued an unprecedented statement, condemning Ahmadinejad, saying "He who does not represent the Iranian people, who forged elections and who suppresses the Iranian people and stole the authority, is not entitled to talk about Palestine, or the president of Palestine." If what the Lebanese paper reports about Ahmadinejad's intention to visit the Lebanese-Israel border and hurl stones at Israeli soldiers is true, it would be nothing more than another desperate (and hopefully unsuccessful) attempt at provocation and diversion from his own incompetence.
Amir Salim, a Lebanese butcher told a reporter on Wednesday, "[Ahmadinejad] is an important guest, he deserves an important gift," as he cleared the crowds away so they wouldn't get stained by the blood of 10 sheep and 2 camels that were to be slaughtered. But as one looks at Ahmadinejad's state visit in context, it's important to understand that Lebanon is one of the very few places in the world where Ahmadinejad is welcome. A few weeks ago, even the head of the Central Bank of Lebanon announced that Lebanon would join banking sanctions against Iran. And as for those Hezbollah supporters, how ironic to be concerned about staining people with the blood of animals while honoring a man who is stained with the blood of nonviolent pro-democratic activists like Neda. And how shortsighted and contemptible is the hypocrisy of those Hezbollah supporters who claim to stand for justice for the Palestinians while supporting such a murderous figure. All one can say to the woman who told reporters, "He rebuilt Lebanon, we welcome him here in his second country," is that Hezbollah and the Lebanese have always been nothing more than a side-kick mistress for the Iranian regime, enjoying the occasional jewelry and nights of amore, but not knowing what it's like to be married to it.
PostScript: Sam's Response to Commments: