BEIRUT (AFP) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s expected tour of south Lebanon during his official visit to the Mediterranean country was criticised as a “provocation” on Friday by the largest bloc in parliament. On the two-day visit from October 13, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to hold talks with his counterpart Michel Sleiman, who invited the Iranian leader, as well as Prime Minister Saad Hariri and parliament speaker Nabih Berri.
The hardliner is also due to meet on the sidelines with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah — a key ally whose powerful party is considered a proxy of Iran — and tour the south of the country, according to political officials.
“The message is that Iran is at the border with Israel,” Fares Souaid, coordinator of the “March 14” alliance, told AFP.
“Ahmadinejad through this visit is saying that Beirut is under Iranian influence and that Lebanon is an Iranian base on the Mediterranean,” said Souaid, whose coalition is led by the Western- and Saudi-backed premier.
“His visit to the south would be a provocation, he doesn’t need to go there,” he added.
Souaid also pointed out Ahmadinejad was coming to Beirut at a time when the West is bidding to rescue fledgling, US-backed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The Iranian president is here to say that Lebanon is a land of resistance and to reaffirm his project of a continuous war with Israel,” he said.
Lebanon’s southern border region with Israel is largely controlled by Hezbollah and was devastated during the 2006 war between the militant party and the Jewish state.
Ahmadinejad would tour the villages of Qana and Bint Jbeil as well as a war museum in the region inaugurated by Hezbollah earlier this year, a Hezbollah official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“This will be a message to the United States and Israel that they need to understand there is a regional force backing Lebanon,” said Sheikh Ali Yassin, a local imam in the southern coastal city of Tyre.
In Israel, a foreign ministry spokesman said the Iranian leader’s visit was cause for concern.
“We have heard that Ahmadinejad is preparing a serious tour… (like) a big landowner coming to inspect his property,” Yigal Palmor told AFP.
“He has already said to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that south Lebanon was Iran’s border with Israel,” he added.
“All this should be very worrying for anyone who is concerned about the stability of Lebanon and of the Middle East.”
The visit will be Ahmadinejad’s first to Lebanon since his 2005 election.
It comes amid heightened tensions in the country over unconfirmed reports that a UN-backed tribunal probing the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father — ex-premier Rafiq Hariri — is set to indict Hezbollah members in connection with the murder.
There are fears that should the Special Tribunal for Lebanon implicate Hezbollah, this would lead to sectarian clashes similar to ones that brought Lebanon close to civil war in 2008.
Iran’s ambassador to Lebanon, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, said this week that Ahmadinejad’s visit was aimed at promoting unity among the Lebanese.
The Islamic republic heavily financed the reconstruction of southern Lebanon after the 2006 war and more recently said it stood ready to offer military aid.
That offer came in the wake of a US freeze in its military aid to Beirut over concerns the weapons could be used by Hezbollah.
The militant group is blacklisted by Washington as a terrorist organisation.
The United States and its allies have also been embroiled in a long-running dispute with Iran over its controversial nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes.