BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used a visit to Lebanon on Wednesday to assure the government that Iran would stand by Beirut in confronting what he called hostilities from neighboring Israel.
Ahmadinejad, making the first official state visit by an Iranian president to Lebanon, was given a tumultuous welcome by thousands of Shi’ite Muslims who lined the road from the airport, throwing rice and petals at his motorcade.
“The Iranian nation will always stand beside the Lebanese nation and will never abandon them ... We will surely help the Lebanese nation against animosities, mainly staged by the Zionist regime (Israel),” he said.
Israel and Tehran’s Shi’ite ally Hezbollah fought a 34-day war in 2006, a conflict which killed 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 158 Israelis, mostly soldiers.
Ahmadinejad, who was due to visit Lebanon’s border region with Israel on Thursday, told a rally organized by Hezbollah that Israel would pay a price for any aggressive action.
“(Israel) feels it has reached a dead end, and may stage new treacherous acts to rescue its existence and to create opportunities for itself,” he told a crowd of thousands, waving Iranian and Lebanese flags.
“I announce here and now that any new treacherous act will merely shorten this fabricated regime’s disgraceful life.”
The United States said Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon showed he was continuing his “provocative ways.” Washington wants to isolate Iran over its nuclear programme and says Iran’s support for Hezbollah militants undermines Lebanese sovereignty.
Ahmadinejad’s trip has also alarmed pro-Western politicians in Lebanon’s fractious unity government, who had said that he treats Lebanon like “an Iranian base on the Mediterranean.”
But in a message apparently aimed at addressing those protests and easing months of political tension, Ahmadinejad stressed Iranian backing for all Lebanese.
“We support a strong and unified Lebanon. We will always back the Lebanese government and its nation,” he said after talks with President Michel Suleiman, a Maronite Christian.
Lebanon’s Energy and Water Minister Gebran Bassil said Iran had agreed a $450 million loan for Lebanon to support power and water projects. He said Ahmadinejad had stressed during the talks that “all the benefits of this visit would be for all the Lebanese,” rather than for a single faction.
Lebanon’s government, which includes Hezbollah ministers, is deeply split over an international investigation into the killing of former premier Rafik al-Hariri which is expected to indict Hezbollah members.
Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain statesman, is resisting escalating pressure from Hezbollah and its allies to renounce the U.N.-backed probe before it issues indictments.
“We have confirmed the importance of maintaining Lebanese national unity...supporting the state and its institutions and strengthening the foundations of stability,” Suleiman said after the talks.
Ahmadinejad had a rare telephone call on Tuesday with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, whose country supports Hezbollah’s Sunni Muslim rivals. He also discussed maintaining security in Lebanon with Jordan’s King Abdullah and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s IRNA news agency said.
Iran has offered to step in to supply Lebanon’s poorly equipped army after U.S. military aid was held up by political objections in Congress following a border clash between Lebanese and Israeli troops in August.
The West accuses Iran of supplying arms to Hezbollah, which says it has an arsenal of more than 30,000 rockets.
Officials close to Hezbollah stress instead Iran’s support for reconstruction, saying they have spent about $1 billion of Iranian money since 2006 on aid and rebuilding.
Gulf Arab states Saudi Arabia and Qatar, vying for influence with Tehran, have also provided funds but the crowds who greeted Ahmadinejad on Wednesday were clear where their gratitude lay.
“He helped us rebuild Lebanon. If he hadn’t, our houses would still be destroyed and we would still be living in tents,” 50-year-old Mahmoud Darwish said.
Additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Parisa Hafezi and Ramin Mostafavi in Tehran; writing by Dominic Evans; editing by Philippa Fletcher