BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanese President Michel Suleiman asked Iran on Monday for a formal assurance that its Revolutionary Guards, who helped found the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon 30 years ago, have no presence there now, the president’s office said.
He made the unusual request in a meeting with Iranian ambassador Ghazanfar Roknabadi, a day after an Iranian commander said the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had forces in neighboring Syria supplying non-military aid to President Bashar al-Assad, who is battling an 18-month-old uprising.
Roknabadi denied media reports that the IRGC had also sent forces to Lebanon, but the president nonetheless asked the Iranian authorities for an official clarification as to whether the IRGC was present in Lebanon, Suleiman’s office said.
The Syria conflict has worsened tensions in Lebanon between a pro-Assad camp led by Hezbollah and groups opposed to the Syrian leader, whose country exerted a strong grip over its tiny neighbor until Syrian troops ended a 29-year presence in 2005.
During that era it would have been unthinkable for a Lebanese president to query Iran about its activities in Lebanon.
Hezbollah, a powerful Shi‘ite militant and political group backed by Syria and Iran, was established with IRGC help after Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, when the Guards installed themselves in the town of Baalbek in the Bekaa valley.
Some anti-Iranian politicians say Iranian forces remain in Lebanon, but no such military presence has been proven.
On Sunday, the IRGC’s commander-in-chief publicly acknowledged for the first time that members of its Qods forces, a unit set up to export Iran’s ideology, were in Syria. Syrian rebels fighting to topple Assad have long accused him of using Iranian forces in combat.
Reporting by Erika Solomon; Editing by Alistair Lyon