Middle East

Hezbollah Welcomes Iran's President To Lebanon

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Even before he arrived, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's trip stoked tensions inside and outside Lebanon. Critics accuse him of trying to turn Lebanon into an Iranian base on the Mediterranean Sea. Others welcome him as the president of a country that spent hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding Lebanon after the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Beirut this morning, and this is no ordinary visit. Even before he arrived, the trip had stoked tensions inside and outside Lebanon. His critics accuse him of trying to turn Lebanon into an Iranian base on the Mediterranean Sea.

But many others are welcoming him as the president of a country that spent hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding Lebanon after the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel.

NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Beirut, covering the visit.

Good morning, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: What kind of public reaction are you seeing, to this visit?

NELSON: Well, I'm standing along the parade route from the airport into the city. And as Ahmadinejad arrived here there were thousands of people lining the roads here holding Iranian flags, waving posters and balloons, and calling out and cheering.

But there are others, who were obviously not along the parade road this morning, who are much more cynical about this visit. One group of people opposing the visits here, including former parliamentarians and civil society members, they wrote a letter - basically an open letter - accusing Ahmadinejad of backing one party here, Hezbollah, the militia, and fostering strife between the various different sects here, and basically provoking Israel. I mean, that's something that is of great concern here, because the war was not that long ago in their memories.

WERTHEIMER: What's he going to be doing while he's there? What's on his schedule in Lebanon?�

NELSON: Well, he's meeting with all the different leaders. The protocol says that he was to first meet with the president, who's a Christian and Maronite. And then he will meet with the parliament speaker, who's a Shi'ite Muslim like himself. That'll be this evening. And then tomorrow, he will meet with the prime minister who's a Sunni - Saad Hariri, who's the son of the assassinated Rafic�Hariri, who was, you know, previously the prime minister here.

These protocol visits, that's sort of, as I said, part of the norm. What's different, is that tomorrow he will be headed south to what was the center of the 2006 war in Bint Jbeil. And he will be giving a speech there. A speech that will likely be very fiery, anti-Israel, and pro-Hezbollah. And this is something that, again, is worrying to some people here.

WERTHEIMER: Who benefits and who loses from this visit?�

NELSON: Well, Hezbollah very much benefits from this. I mean, a lot of people here are waiting to see what the U.N. tribunal decides concerning the Hariri investigation. This is the investigation into the bombing death of Rafic�Hariri some years back. And so the feeling is that by having the Iranian president here, this distracts from that, that it dampens what the tribunal may or may not do.

So definitely Hezbollah's a winner on this. Ahmadinejad himself benefits from this, because he's being received here as a leader, as a regional powerhouse. And that's certainly something that, you know, he would like to see more of.

And in terms of those who don't benefit, again, it's sort of a slap in the face to the pro-Western government that's in charge here and to the other sects. And obviously Israel suffers from this, too. It's not something that they are very keen about, as their leaders have expressed great reservations about this visit to Western leaders.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: NPRs Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Beirut covering the visit by Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

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