Despite Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's efforts to ham up his groundbreaking visit to Lebanon last week, debkafile's military sources quote Western and Arab observers as summing it up as a dud and a shambles. Lebanese leaders clamped down on his performance in the South on Thursday, Oct. 10, and spoiled his plan for a grand display of hostile power opposite Israel.
That day, after receiving a University of Beirut honorary doctorate, the visitor was tackled over lunch by Lebanese President Michel Suleiman and chief of staff Gen. Jean Qahwaji who demanded that he rearrange his South Lebanon itinerary.
The original plan was for Ahmadinejad, with Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah beside him, to drive down the coast to the south past cheering and waving crowds. The Hizballah leader was to be the co-star of the event and their cavalcade's security escort entrusted to armed Hizballah men and Iranian Revolutionary Guards instead of Lebanese military soldiers.
In the event, Suleiman and Gen. Qahwaji insisted on cutting Hizballah out of any security tasks and the national army be exclusively responsible for his safety throughout the visit.
This decision set off furious arguments, with Nasrallah threatening to torpedo the entire event if he was not permitted to accompany Ahmadinejad on his tour of the Lebanese-Israel border.
According to debkafile's sources, the visitor finally bowed to his hosts' demand. As a result, Ahmadiinejad's trip South started late Thursday afternoon and had to be rushed through the two hours remaining before nightfall. The triumphal coastal drive was called off and the Iranian president carried to Bin Jbeil in S. Lebanon, some two kilometers from the Israeli border, by a Lebanese army helicopter. The troops refused to let Nasrallah climb aboard the chopper and he was left behind.
So furious was the Hizballah chief at being thrown of the helicopter and left out of the high point of his boss's visit that he ordered his top commanders to boycott the ceremonial welcome for Ahmadinejad at Bin Jbeil. They were therefore conspicuous by their absence. By the time the speech was over, the light was fading and the Lebanese officers accompanying Ahmadinejad told him that the helicopter flight in the dark to his next stop at Maroun a-Ras, right on the border, was too risky to undertake so late.
Ahmadinejad had to give up his ultimate provocation of reviewing the battlefields of the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war within the sight of Israel and standing alongside the golden replica of Al Aqsa in Jerusalem which Hizballah had constructed in his honor.
In this way, the Lebanese president and chief of staff managed to keep the Iranian president away from the border with Israel and staging the confrontational poses to which his visit had been building up.
At the time, the delay in Ahmadinejad's arrival in the South was explained as caused by his effort to persuade Prime Minister Saad Hariri to dismantle the UN tribunal and so avoid having Hizballah officials indicted for complicity in the murder of his father Rafiq Hariri five years ago.
The subject never arose between them, our sources report. The Lebanese prime minister was already packing ready to fly to Riyadh and report to King Abdullah on the Ahmadinejad visit which the Saudis deeply resented.
The following Sunday, Oct. 17, debkafile's Middle East sources disclose that Jeffrey Feltman, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, arrived in Beirut for a brief stop. He had been instructed to assess the damage Ahmadinejad's visit had wrought to US interests in the country and report back to President Barack Obama.
The American official was informed that the Iranian president had opted for giving his visit a Lebanese national character rather than reflecting Hizballah factional interests. The report he brought back to Washington was therefore favorable. Neither Ahmadinejad nor Nasrallah had obtained any of their objectives from the event.