BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Lebanon this week on a trip which underlines the growing power of Iran’s Shi’ite ally Hezbollah and which is expected to take him within a couple of miles of arch-foe Israel.
Ahmadinejad’s visit has raised concern in Washington, which seeks to isolate Iran over its nuclear program and says Iran’s support for Hezbollah militants undermines Lebanese sovereignty.
It has also alarmed pro-Western politicians in Lebanon’s fragile unity government, who protested that Ahmadinejad treats their country like “an Iranian base on the Mediterranean.”
But the Iranian president is guaranteed a warm welcome on Wednesday from the two main Shi’ite parties, Hezbollah and Amal, who have called for crowds to gather at the airport road, lined with posters of Ahmadinejad and Iranian and Lebanese flags.
Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Lebanon should thank Iran for supporting “resistance movements in the region... especially at the time of the July war in Lebanon,” referring to a 2006 conflict when Hezbollah fought Israel to a standstill.
In a speech on Saturday he said Iran had helped rebuild Beirut’s southern suburbs and funded post-war reconstruction in south Lebanon, both Hezbollah strongholds. “Where did this money come from? From donations? No, frankly from Iran.”
Officials close to Hezbollah say they have spent about $1 billion of Iranian money since 2006 on aid and rebuilding. The West accuses Iran of supplying arms to Hezbollah, which says it has an arsenal of more than 30,000 rockets.
In a sign that Tehran is seeking to reinforce its influence, it has offered to help Lebanon boost its inadequate electricity network, support water projects, and replace U.S. weapons supplies held up by political objections in Congress.
Ahmadinejad is expected to sign an agreement for a $450 million loan to fund electricity and water projects, as well as an accord on energy cooperation. Lebanon hopes to issue licenses next year to explore for gas off its Mediterranean coast.
Iran offered in August to step in and support Lebanon’s army after a cross-border clash between Lebanon and Israel prompted U.S. lawmakers to block funding to the Lebanese military.
But diplomats say that any weapons sent to Lebanon from Iran would violate United Nations sanctions imposed over Tehran’s nuclear program, which Western powers say could be used to make atomic bombs. Iran says its nuclear program is peaceful.
Ahmadinejad is due to address a rally in southern Beirut at which Nasrallah will also speak — possibly by video link — and Lebanese officials say he will go to south Lebanon after concluding the formal state visit.
He is expected to visit the towns of Qana and Bint Jbeil, a Hezbollah bastion just 4 km (2.5 miles) from the Israeli border which was heavily bombed by Israel during the 2006 war.
Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map and said last month that any attack by Israel on Iran would lead to the destruction of the state of Israel as a political entity.
Israel, believed to be the Middle East’s only nuclear-armed power, sees Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to its existence and has not ruled out military action to prevent Tehran from building an atomic bomb.
Ahmadinejad is also due to meet President Michel Suleiman, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whose unity government includes Hezbollah ministers.
His talks coincide with heightened tension in Lebanon over the expected indictment of Hezbollah members by a U.N.-backed tribunal over the 2005 assassination of Hariri’s father, billionaire statesman Rafik al-Hariri.
Hezbollah has condemned the tribunal as an “Israeli project,” but Hariri has resisted pressure from Hezbollah allies to denounce the investigation into his father’s killing.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Alistair Lyon