>BEIRUT -- There's a saying in Arabic: "You drink politics with your mother's milk." But this week's visit to Lebanon by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shows that Iran, and by proxy Hezbollah, is breaking this pattern by directly engaging younger generations in a culture of resistance and radicalism.
On Wednesday morning, children of all ages came out to the airport road to welcome Ahmadinejad on his first visit to the Arab nation since becoming president in 2005: Some had Lebanese flags painted on their faces, others were so tiny their mothers' had to cradle them in their arms. Being the second largest job provider in Lebanon, Hezbollah considered Ahmadinejad's visit a holiday, bringing children from their Mehdi and Houda schools, associations, and scout group's to attend the Iranian president's welcoming festivities. A group of children who did not go to school to celebrate the occasion had the words Revolution Institute on their hats, while a woman had a dress sewn made from the bright yellow Hezbollah flag. White baseball caps with the Iranian flag and a cedar tree, symbolizing Lebanon, dotted the crowd. And one lone man wore a USA shirt in a sea of red, white and green. The older kids sang songs and cheered and one little girl was even dressed in what looked like a wedding dress, with white flowers in her hair and white shiny heels on her feet.
For a certain segment of Lebanon, Ahmadinejad's visit is a major event in their lifetime and one that Hezbollah qualified as a historical visit. Remember, for Shiite Muslim's, many of whom feel ignored by the Lebanese government and the outside world- Iran, and its ally Hezbollah, are the only ones paying attention to them. And any attention is good attention. Iran gives Hezbollah millions of dollars a year, not to mention a slew of weapons.
Zaynab Shaito, a young woman who was waiting for Amadenijad on the airport road on Wednesday, said: "I'm here to pay back the Islamic Republic. I'm here to say thank you for building my house and village, and my country. In times when everybody is against Iran and against Ahmadinejad we are here to support Iran, and we are here to show that no one can stop us from loving the path of freedom and resistance."
After the morning's parade Ahmadinejad's black SUV headed to Baabda presidential palace where the Iranian leader met representatives from Hezbollah, as well as Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Saad Hariri. It was strange to see photos of Hariri and Ahmadinejad shaking hands knowing that a UN tribunal is investigating the assassination of Saad's father -- former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri -- and is expected to indict members of Hezbollah soon. Even before Ahmadinejad's visit, tensions had been mounting between Hezbollah and the pro-Western coalition that leads the government causing many Lebanese to worry there may be another war -- this one bigger and more deadly than those in the past. Given that much of the power -- and money -- behind Hezbollah comes from Iran, Ahmadinejad's visit is a show of strength for Hezbollah and its leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Yet there was no sign of tension between the two countries at Wednesday's meeting. Ahmadinejad referred to Lebanon as his "brother" and said he "feels like at home." He praised the Lebanese army for fighting off "the Zionist enemy" and called the country "the banner of pride and freedom not only for the people of Lebanon, but for all peoples of the region." He pointed out that both countries' goals are aligned and both "Iranian and Lebanese peoples are raising their voices because they want justice." "We want to increase our cooperation in all fields on this day," he said.
Washington has expressed its concern about Ahmadinejad's trip with U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley saying last week that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke with the Suleiman about the visit. Then on Wednesday U.S. Ambassador Maura Connelly released remarks saying that Lebanon is a "sovereign state that can invite or receive anybody." "There is a concern we share with the countries in the region that Iran is not playing a helpful role in the region in terms of stability," Connelly said.
Ahmadinejad will visit several villages in the south of Lebanon that were destroyed during the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war, one of which is only a few miles from Israel. Rumor has it he will throw a stone at the nation he swore to "wipe off the map." In turn Knesset Member Arieh Eldad of the National Union threatened to kill Ahmadinejad if he threw rocks. The timing couldn't have been worse given that the Middle East peace talks are in progress.
Yet peace was not the word on most people's tongues on Wednesday -- more often, the word I heard was "resistance." The image Ahmadinejad supporters seem to have is that Iran and Lebanon need to stick together to fend off their enemies. Hussein Hammade, who was one of the thousands of onlookers waiting for Ahmadinejad on Wednesday morning, said: "I'm here to say welcome to the exceptional man, and I'm here to say thank you. It means a lot to us this visit. It's a visit to strengthen the resistance. In the presence of enemies all working to burn Lebanon, this visit make me feel safer now that we are not alone and we got a strong man representing a strong country in town."
But not everyone in Lebanon is a fan of the Iranian leader. Mustapha Eitani, 27, expressed fear of what the visit is going to mean for Lebanon. "This visit is making me worry," he said. "It is after he is gone that I'm worried about. I think he is here to prepare for the coup d'état Hezbollah is preparing after he is gone. Iran needs to leave us alone, don't turn Lebanon as an arena to settle their differences with the Americans."
After Wednesday's parade tens of thousands of Ahmadinejad supporters gathered in Raya Square in Dahieh, a southern suburb of Beirut and a Hezbollah stronghold.
"Allah, Allah, Allah!" thousands sang. "Let's go Nasrallah!" young girls cheered as the Hezbollah leader appeared, for security reasons, via video link. Girls as young as 13 spoke about how "cute" Ahmadinejad is and stood on chairs to get a better look at him.
A friend who lives in Dahieh invited me to his mother's apartment to drink tea and watch the festivities from her second floor balcony. Amazed by the size of the crowd he explained that "nobody ever comes here," which is why the Iranian leader's visit, accompanied by patriotic music and ten-story posters, is such a big deal in the neighborhood. It's not necessarily that Ahmadinejad is loved by everyone, but his arrival is probably one of the biggest social events of the year and one that is not to be missed.
Of course I couldn't see the many thousands who did not show up for the rally on Wednesday night. But from what I could see, many young Lebanese idolize Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad. Whether it's for the substance of their message or their charisma is another question.
There are prospects for democracy in Lebanon, but the presence of the Iranian regime is certainly one of the challenges facing it. I have met a number of young people here who are pushing for social change using the tools at hand: Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. I have met Shiites with diverse political sensibilities, many of whom are even anti-Hezbollah. But democracy-building is a slow process and the export of Iranian propaganda to a country struggling to forge its own identity doesn't make it any easier.
Reporting contributed by Moe Ali Nayel. Photos by Elinor Collins.
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Ruthie Ackerman is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. She has reported from Lebanon on a grant from the International Reporting Project.