At some point in 2006, I recall asking a friend of mine what he thought of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had recently been elected President of Iran. This friend (known to readers of this blog as “Abbas“) is a Lebanese Shiite living in Beirut, and a devoted partisan of Hizbullah. The conversation went something like this:
QN: So what do you think of this new Iranian president? Ahmadinejad?
Abbas: Fantastic. I love him.
QN: You like him better than Khatami?
QN: How do you think Hizbullah feels about him? Will he serve the party’s interests?
Abbas: Of course he will. Who do you think brought him to power?
That’s right. Such is the mystique of Hizbullah in Lebanon that it wouldn’t be completely outlandish for someone to claim that the Iranian president’s rise was facilitated by the influence of his Lebanese allies. Nasrallah, after all, was a regional rock star while Ahmadinejad was revoking parking tickets as mayor of Tehran. (This was the gist of the discussion that followed, between me and Abbas).
Obviously, Abbas’s point was just another silly conspiracy theory (which we absolutely never tolerate on this blog), but it raises an interesting question. For the past few years, Iran’s reputation in Lebanon seems to have been tied to the fortunes of Hizbullah. Nasrallah was the public face of Iranian ambitions in the Levant, enjoying a 10% lead in popularity across the region over Ahmadinejad (according to the University of Maryland and Zogby International’s Arab Public Opinion Poll). This meant that more Arabs admired Nasrallah than they did Ahmadinejad, and anecdotally this struck one as true: Nasrallah’s popularity across the region was untouchable from the end of the July War through at least March 2008, and both Ahmadinejad and Bashar al-Assad seemed to be riding on Nasrallah’s coattails.
In 2009, something happened. Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad took a major beating in the regional popularity polls (conducted in April-May 2009), while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez shot from 9th place to 1st. How to explain this reversal of fortunes? Here’s my highly unscientific hypothesis:
- After the May 2008 events in Lebanon (which occurred after the 2008 poll was conducted), Hizbullah’s reputation among Sunnis across the region was (temporarily) tarnished.
- In early 2009, the region watched Israel attack Gaza as Hizbullah sat on its hands, unwilling to provoke another confrontation in Lebanon.
- Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez accused Israel of committing genocide and expelled the Israeli ambassador from Caracas. Presto: instant celebrity.
Now, Chavez’s resistance credentials in the Arab-Israeli conflict are nothing compared to Hizbullah’s and Iran’s. But the fact of his turnaround seemed to count for something. Iran couldn’t dismiss its Israeli ambassador because it doesn’t have one. And if Ahmadinejad blamed Israel for committing genocide, no one would notice because he does this on his way to work each day. Meanwhile, the Chavez effect repeated itself this year. Who was the most admired leader in the Arab world in 2010? Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Where was he in the polls in 2008 and 2009? Last place and second-to-last, respectively. While he also criticized the Gaza assault, his real surge in popularity was almost certainly tied to the flotilla incident.
This is a very circuitous way of saying that I found myself wondering today, as I listened to Nasrallah’s speech welcoming Ahmadinejad to Beirut, whether Iran is trying to step out of Hizbullah’s shadow in Lebanon. That sounds odd to hear, given the nature of their relationship. But I think that it’s not that far-fetched to imagine that Iran’s ambitions include winning over non-Shi’a Lebanese through a mixture of investment projects, military aid, assistance in energy exploration and infrastructure development.