Just a week ago, four radical Middle East leaders were looking forward to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadienjad's forthcoming visit to Lebanon on Oct. 13-14 as their ladder to the glittering pinnacle of Middle East power. To gain this boost to their personal and national prestige, they were even willing to set aside their differences for that defining moment.
Ahmadinejad himself was certain he had only to set foot on Lebanese soil for Iran's sway over that country to be accepted unquestioningly by all its diverse political and religious groupings which would henceforth toe the Iranian line.
Syrian President Bashar Assad believed that the visit would teach the Iranian leader to appreciate his value as the key to controlling Beirut and would henceforth defer to Syria's dominant influence and presence in the Lebanese capital.
Hizballah's Hassan Nasrallah counted on the Iranian president to show the world that Iran was the invincible boss of Lebanon and Hizballah its trusty right hand for running the show of government, including national security and foreign affairs.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan saw the visit as a leap toward solidifying the bloc of nations made up of Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinians that was destined to rule the Middle East.
He put his contest with Tehran over the top slot on hold under the axis was up and running.
None of them imagined the brutally aggressive, attention-grabbing Iranian president could fall on his face, least off on the tiny Lebanese platform. But that is exactly what happened. Bowled over, all four found their apple carts tipped over, their strategic plans thrown off course and their personal prestige dented.
Lebanese president turns down defense treaty with Iran
All of DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources agree that the widely-hailed Iranian president's visit to Lebanon missed out. They are not entirely clear why this should have happened when Iran, Hizballah and Syria put in three months of painstaking efforts to make it a smash hit.
They advance four possible causes:
1. It went wrong on the first day when Ahmadinejad failed to persuade Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri to sign a defense treaty with Tehran and apply for Iranian weapons for the Lebanese Army.
This contretemps was his first eye-opener. It meant that if Tehran wanted to gain a strong military foothold in Lebanon and the eastern Mediterranean seaboard, it was not immediately for sale. For now the Iranians would have to be content with its proxy, Hizballah.
2. He was also brought up short by the limits drawn to Iran's ability to parlay its power and influence among Shiites into political clout in the Sunni-dominated Arab Middle East. This barrier loomed at the worst possible time for Tehran, engaged as it is in a campaign for influence in Baghdad and the last word on the Iraqi government's makeup.
The Lebanon venture starkly exposed the hidden interplay between Iran's machinations in Baghdad and Beirut, so compromising Iran as leading Middle East mover and shaker.
Lebanese prime minister won't give up Hariri trial
3. Ahmadinejad was frustrated again when Lebanese Prime Minister Sa'ad Hariri flatly refused to come to terms with Hizballah and Syria on doing away with the Special UN Tribunal for Lebanon-STL to save Hizballah leaders from indictment in the 2005 Rafiq Hariri assassination.
He had been certain of succeeding after picking up hints from Washington and Paris that neither would mind if the tribunal gradually faded into self-dissolution in the interests of Lebanon's fragile stability.
He also talked it over with Saudi King Abdullah before setting out for Beirut.
But Hariri adamantly refused to revoke the tribunal's mandate or funding, resolved more than ever to bring his father's assassins to justice, "whoever they may be."
That phrase has become a ticking bomb in Beirut for Hizballah to carry out its threat of military action against the Hariri government and/or across the Israeli border to save his security and intelligence officers from standing trial before the STL.
Ahmanijad's failure to talk Hariri and Hizballah round to an accommodation confronts Tehran with a quandary because letting Hizballah off the leash could have unpredictable and ungovernable consequences: A military challenge to the government in Beirut could quickly ignite internecine war in Lebanon and heating up the border with Israel carried the risk of a general conflagration.
On the other hand, by holding Nasrallah back, Tehran would appear to be abandoning its foremost Middle East ally to its fate.
Last minute: Hariri informed Saudi Arabia and Egypt Thursday night, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources disclose, that he would prefer to resign as prime minister rather than make the slightest concession to Hizballah with regard to the probe into his father's murder. Saudi diplomats are engaged in frantic efforts to arrange a meeting between Hariri and the Hizballah's leader to avert the outbreak of fighting in Lebanon.
Nasrallah publicly humiliated, Assad snubbed in Riyadh
4. On the second day of the visit, Thursday, October 14, things went from bad to worse.
The plan was for Ahmadinejad, with Nasrallah beside him, to drive in a triumphal cavalcade down the Lebanese coastal highway to the South. The Hizballah leader stage-managed the event to present himself as its co-star. Smart Hizballah units and Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen were to accompany the cavalcade as its security escort after pushing Lebanese soldiers out of the way.
However, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman supported by Lebanese Chief of Staff Gen. Jean Qahwaj stamped hard on the plan, insisting that no force other than the Lebanese army – certainly not Hizballah – secure all parts of the Iranian president's visit.
After arguing for four hours, Ahmadinejad bowed to his hosts' decision (More about this incident in HOT POINTS below) and informed them he accepted the protection of the Lebanese army for the remainder of his visit.
So mortified was Nasrallah by this public humiliation, the most painful since Tehran ostracized him in July 2006 for going to war with Israel without permission, that he retired to his bunker. He tried not to hear the murmured question running through the Middle East: is this how Iran treats its staunchest allies?
The Syrian president was next to feel the backlash from the Iranian president's Lebanon fiasco.
He arrived in Riyadh for talks with King Abdullah Sunday, Oct. 17 on working together in Lebanon and Iraq and finding a way to prevent the Hariri tribunal's case from exploding into civil war in Lebanon.
But DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Persian Gulf sources disclose he was stunned by the cool reception he met with. He found Abdullah had hardened his position on all the issues on which they had planned to cooperate.
Instead of being invited to sit down for a formal dinner at the royal palace in Riyadh, Assad was fobbed off with a scratch meal at the Saudi Air Force base to which their meeting had been moved.
The Lebanese prime minister was supposed to wait in the wings until he was sent for to join the Syrian and Saudi rulers. Abdullah would have then told him how to cooperate with Assad.
But Hariri was not present at the Saudi air base and when Assad asked why he was not about Abdullah replied brusquely that he was not needed at this stage.
Assad attempts damage control
According to our sources, when the Syrian ruler tried to impress the king with the important ground covered by Ahmadinejad in Lebanon, Abdullah raised his hand impatiently and cut him short: "That was not the impression we received," he said, "We followed the visit and were not particularly impressed."
Assad went on to stress the significance of the Iranian president's tour of southern Lebanon and the Israeli border, to which Abdullah remarked drily: "So what? Ahmadinejad went to the south and returned after a short time. Has anything changed?"
Assad cut the interview short and returned to Damascus empty-handed.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Beirut sources report that the Syrian president pretends to be mystified and goes about saying the Saudi king's change of heart is incomprehensible, while scrabbling to gain some of the control and influence which has begun to seep away in the fallout from Ahmadinejad's unfortunate trip to Lebanon.
Assad's first move was to press Lebanese President Michel Suleiman to come over to Damascus very soon for talks, hoping he can achieve more from this encounter than the Iranian president managed in his two days in Lebanon.
As for the Turkish prime minister, he has had to swallow a major setback to the radical Middle East bloc he had set his heart on and wait for another chance to fulfill his ambitions. DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East sources reveal that Erdogan in particular had hoped the Arab League would accept Turkey and Iran as new members despite being non-Arab in recognition of their regional power status. He had been encouraged in this expectation by Arab League Secretary Amr Moussa.
That hope, too, lost traction as a result of the Iranian president's poor performance in Lebanon. Shortly after Saudi King Abdullah saw Assad off his premises, he notified Moussa that the two applications would be vetoed.
All this left big questions hanging over the visit, such as, what happened to make the over-assertive, fire-eating Ahmadinejad appear so hesitant and confused in Lebanon? How did he come to act in a way that fumbled Tehran's strong image and miss striking the right note for carrying Arab and Muslim public opinion before him? Was he thrown off by current happenings in Tehran?