Zarif talks nice in Beirut, still no president
BEIRUT - Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif used his visit to Lebanon to send messages to two audiences: To the West, he spoke of new beginnings and fighting terrorism; to the Lebanese, he praised their model of dialogue and resistance.
The Lebanese had been eager to see if Tehran’s nuclear agreement with the P5+1 had produced a “new” Iran. Many Lebanese hoped Zarif’s visit August 12th would help unlock the country’s political gridlock caused by Hezbollah and its ally General Michel Aoun, who have blocked the election of a president in Lebanon for more than a year.
A taxi driver in Beirut opined that there will be a president soon in Lebanon because the Iranian foreign minister was coming and he would pressure Hezbollah to allow an election. Newspaper commentary focused on how Lebanon will be the beneficiary of easing tensions between the Iranians and Americans .
Zarif did not disappoint, at least not rhetorically. In remarks at Beirut airport upon his arrival, he said, “There is a new beginning in the region.”
However, Zarif did not explain what “new beginning” means and he combined optimism with a warning: “This historic opportunity in the region is for cooperation and consultation to face the challenges of extremism and the Zionist enemy itself.”
Zarif met the two Lebanons that Iran deals with and left no doubt which of the two it identifies with more. Mustafa Fahs, a Lebanese political activist, noted that a reception for Zarif hosted by Hezbollah was different in tone from previous receptions held for Iranian officials. Fahs noted that the welcome banners that filled the streets of Beirut when former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Lebanon a few years ago were nowhere in sight. He also pointed to the “very little coverage of [Zarif’s] visit by the pro-Hezbollah media”.
“For Hezbollah,” Fahs said, “Zarif is interested in the Americanisation of Iranian political life.”
Hezbollah’s media department announced that Zarif would not visit the grave of former Hezbollah military leader Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in Syria seven years ago. Fahs wondered whether Hezbollah left the graveside visit off of Zarif’s schedule without his knowledge. “Hezbollah realised they are in one place and Zarif is in another,” Fahs said.
But there is another possible explanation making the rounds in Beirut: Could it be that the very astute Iranian foreign minister did not want to send the wrong message to the West by visiting Mughniyeh’s grave just as the US Congress was debating the nuclear deal? To do so would have been a great gift to those who oppose the deal. Fahs agreed that “Iranian diplomacy has started paying attention to the requirements of its relationship with Washington. Not visiting Mughniyeh’s grave is an indication of a new era.”
Zarif praised Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam for his role in fighting terrorism and providing security for the country. Leading Lebanese daily An-Nahar wrote, “Iranian praise for Salam fortified the government” and said Zarif encouraged dialogue in order to reach an agreement on the presidency. But those who were privy to some of his meetings said Zarif did not offer new initiatives and had more questions than answers. He did, however, give advice during media stakeouts. In the Grand Serail following his meeting with the prime minister, Zarif said: “Today is not the day for competition in Lebanon. Competition has to be for building Lebanon.”
But when asked if Iran was ready to play a role in producing an agreement over a new president, he answered: “We in Iran do not interfere in the internal Lebanese issues and we do not believe that Lebanon should be a playing arena for other countries. This is an internal issue and it should be dealt with among the Lebanese and we expect the Saudis and other players to facilitate this issue and not put obstacles in front of it.”
Interestingly, Zarif’s pledge of non-interference in Lebanese affairs did not preclude his meeting with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and with Palestinian factions allied with Hezbollah. Indeed, most Lebanese would agree that the most important meeting Zarif had was with Nasrallah. There is no doubt that his meeting with Nasrallah had greater consequences for Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and Syria than did his discussions with the Lebanese foreign minister. However, both sides held details of the discussions between Zarif and Nasrallah in confidence. After Beirut, Zarif headed for Damascus, the epicentre of a regional tour that took him to Pakistan and India as well. Turkey was originally included in the tour but the visit was postponed without explanation.