Ahmadinejad: welcome to Iran's western axis

Ahmadinejad’s Lebanon visit part of plan to tighten grip over region


Mad mission: Ahmadinejad

Mad mission: Ahmadinejad

There was a farcical ending to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit last week to Lebanon.

Hours before his departure on Thursday, he had one last meeting, at the Iranian embassy in Beirut. His local ally, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, emerged from his hideout bringing him, as a tribute, a rifle supposedly taken from an Israeli soldier during the Second Lebanon War. But it was a sham. The rifle was an AK-47 Kalashnikov - not a weapon used by Israeli forces.

Hizbollah portray the war four years ago as a glorious victory, but the grim reality for the movement is that it has been deterred ever since from firing even a cap-gun towards Israel, and Nasrallah has remained in hiding for fear of his life. He only allowed himself to come out on Thursday after Iranian guards took over the streets of Beirut.

To a degree, Lebanon's leaders played along with the adulation - much of it stage-managed - dished out to Mr Ahmadinejad. Behind the scenes though, there was a modicum of opposition. The Iranian president was not allowed to get too close to the Israeli border and Prime Minister Saad Hariri turned down an offer to enter into a strategic alliance with Iran. Hizbollah and the Revolutionary Guards may have proved capable of ruling the streets for a couple of days but the pro-western "14th of March" coalition has not yet given up the fight.

Playing with fire: a Fateh 110 missile being tested in Iran. While it has a range of 200km, Iran’s Shahab-3 can reach beyond Israel

Playing with fire: a Fateh 110 missile being tested in Iran. While it has a range of 200km, Iran’s Shahab-3 can reach beyond Israel

The Iranian geopolitical strategy is now clear. It aims to build an axis to the West, through Iraq, where it is engineering a new government to its liking; on to Syria, its main ally and arms conduit to Lebanon; through Hizbollah, which is now openly acting as a rival to the elected government in Beirut; and on to Islamify Turkey, which it is achieving rapidly.

Another significant signal came last month when Chinese combat jets refuelled in Iran, en-route to a joint exercise with the Turkish Air Force, the kind of exercise that only two years ago was routinely held with Israel and the United States.

Mr Ahmadinejad is playing for the highest stakes, and despite his minor setback a few weeks ago, when the Russians announced that they would be adhering to the UN sanctions and not sell Iran advanced anti-aircraft missiles, he is making little secret of the fact that he can look to China and North Korea for arms and military technology.

This international alliance in the making is a clear threat to Western interests in the region, to Israel and to the two other regional powers, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Mr Ahmadinejad is acting resolutely while all his rivals are sunk in their own local problems. The Obama administration, preparing itself for a thrashing in the mid-term elections, has no appetite whatsoever for new conflicts when it is trying to come up with new ways to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan; the Netanyahu government is finding itself increasingly isolated on the international scene over its inability to move forward with the Palestinians; the Egyptian regime is concentrating on ensuring the Mubarak succession while buffeted on either side by the country's democratic and Islamist groups; and the secretive Saudis are riven from within by rivalries between the various factions of the royal family.

But Mr Ahmadinejad's axis is far from solid. Each of the countries that he is relying on still contains a serious opposition to his attempts at hegemony and Lebanon may yet prove to be his stumbling block.

Prime Minister Hariri made a point of flying to Cairo on the eve of the visit, underlining his own allegiance to the moderate camp in the region. President Hosni Mubarak encouraged him to continue backing the UN tribunal investigating his father's assassination five and a half years ago, despite the threats of renewed civil war from the pro-Iranian camp if the tribunal be allowed to deliver its conclusion fingering Hizbollah officials.

American officials have made it clear in recent weeks that if Mr Hariri's government take on their Shia rivals, it will receive all necessary support. While Israel remained on the sidelines of the Ahmadinejad visit, over the last few months a series of well-timed leaks have emphasised the degree to which Israeli intelligence has penetrated Hizbollah's infrastructure and how it plans to use this information to devastating effect in case of renewed warfare. Syrian representatives were conspicuously absent during the visit, despite the Assad regime's current closeness to Iran. They are used to having Lebanon as their fiefdom and a fault-line may be appearing here.

Senior Israeli officers have long maintained that a diplomatic deal between Israel and Syria would drive a wedge through the Iranian axis and that the real basis for Hizbollah's force in Lebanon is the billion dollars a year provided by the Iranians. None of the alliances that Mr Ahmadinejad seeks are secure and Iranian regional dominance is still far from assured.

Mossad chief may be kept on

A fear of letting Israel drop its guard against Iran is causing Prime Minister Netanyahu to considering a further extension of Meir Dagan's tenure as head of Mossad. Mr Dagan was to have retired at the end of this year and an extension of his term to mid-2011 is a sign of the success of his "secret war" against the Iranian nuclear programme and the efforts of Iran and Syria to transfer advanced weapons to Hizbollah and Hamas. There is also concern within the highest echelons of government over replacing the senior heads of Israel's defence and intelligence agencies all at one go. Senior generals including the IDF Chief of General Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, are due to retire within months.

Last updated: 4:12pm, October 21 2010