Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad waves to the crowds from the sunroof of his SUV upon his arrival in Beirut on Wednesday. Thousands of cheering Lebanese welcomed Ahmadinejad to Lebanon, throwing rose petals and sweets at his motorcade at the start of a visit that underscores a growing recognition of Iran as a power broker in the region.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a controversial visit to Lebanon on Wednesday, one that is causing U.S. officials some concern.
They fear the Iranian leader will inflame already growing tensions among Lebanon's various sects over a U.N. investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
But in public, at least, Ahmadinejad is being warmly received by all of his Lebanese hosts. The Lebanese reaction also shows a growing recognition of the Islamic Republic as a power broker in the region.
Throngs of young Lebanese lining the airport road in Beirut screamed as if they were at a rock concert when an announcer bid the Iranian president a hearty welcome in his native Persian.
Ahmadinejad waved and blew kisses at the crowd as he passed in his dark Chevrolet Suburban.
In the southern suburbs of Beirut, where Iran-backed Hezbollah holds sway, there is little doubt that Ahmadinejad is popular.
Batoul Bassa, 18, was one of thousands of Lebanese well-wishers who turned out to see him.
"I think that his coming here holds a really great message that Iran is near us in all our times, whether bad or good," Bassa says.
Iran donated millions of dollars to help rebuild Lebanon after the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah — a conflict that left much of Lebanon's Shiite heartland in ruins.
Karim Makdisi, an assistant professor of international politics at the American University in Beirut, says the visit is also a chance for Lebanon to build up strategic alliances in the region — not just with U.S. allies, but with other power brokers like Iran.
"The way Lebanon functions politically, is it needs to straddle both sides and needs to be able to survive without descending into some kind of chaos and war," Makdisi says.
He adds that Ahmadinejad also benefits at a time when Iran is under increasing pressure from the U.S. and others to curb its suspect nuclear program.
"The massive reception, the deals he's going to sign — he's going to get a lot of attention, and it's going to break the isolation that Iran is under, and show that Ahmadinejad is a statesman in the region, and that he has influence, and that he is able to flex his muscle in the region. And so clearly that all flies in the face of the U.S. and Israeli attempts to isolate Iran," Makdisi says.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah offered a spirited defense of Ahmadinejad in a televised speech at a rally for the Iranian president in Beirut's southern suburbs.
But U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a tour of the Balkans, sent a thinly veiled warning to the Iranian president.
"We reject any efforts to destabilize or enslave tensions within Lebanon. And we would hope that no visitor would do anything or say anything that would give cause to greater tension or instability in that country," Clinton said.
So far, Ahmadinejad appears to be embracing all of the Lebanese sects and not just the Shiites with whom his country is allied.