Page last updated at 10:38 GMT, Saturday, 16 October 2010 11:38 UK

Ahmadinejad's visit raises sectarian tension in Lebanon

Lebanese supporters of Iran's President Ahmadinejad
The Iranian president's visit has divided opinion in Lebanon

By Jeremy Bowen
BBC News, Lebanon

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently visited south Lebanon, close to the Israeli border. Tens of thousands of people turned out to hear him speak, but the trip also sparked controversy among different Lebanese groups.

Ali Hamdan pointed to the floor.

"When you're dealing with the Iranians," he said, "it's all about carpets."

President Ahmadinejad in the town of Bint Jbeil, Lebanon
President Ahmadinejad's visit is a sign of friendship towards Lebanon

Mr Hamdan is the charming and always amiable foreign affairs chief of Amal. It is the senior Shia political movement in Lebanon, though it has been outgrown by Hezbollah.

His boss, Nabi Berri, a name older people might remember from the civil war of the 70s and 80s, led the official greeting party at Beirut airport for his fellow Shia, President Ahmadinejad.

Ali was talking about the ritual of bargaining that you have to go through if you are a customer in the Tehran carpet bazaar: the inspection of the goods, the non-committal interest in carpets you may not necessarily want as a diversionary tactic to get a good price for the ones you do, and the leisurely consumption of tea.

Then come the first prices, then the slightly contemptuous response when the customer names his, and then a glance signifying that, "if you knew anything about carpets you would not be wasting my time".

Until finally the deal is done, always, I suspect, with the carpet dealer coming out on top.

But Ali Hamdan meant more than simply how to buy, sell and bargain.

Sharing a religion can take you only so far. The Iranians and the Arabs are not the same people

He was also talking about the weaving of the carpet, the months of knotting thousands of strands of wool or silk - and the pattern, rarely written down, but lodged in the mind of the carpet-maker, gradually and inexorably emerging on the loom.

The Iranians, he was suggesting, know where they are going in carpets, in business, and in political negotiations.

On a chair opposite, packages stuffed with Iranian and Lebanese flags were spilling out on to his hand-woven carpet in a mass of blues and reds.

Mr Hamdan's boss was expecting President Ahmadinejad for dinner.

Let us not stretch the carpet metaphor too much. I might have hesitated to use it all if Ali had not used it.

These days sensible Western reporters do not want to be accused of masking their ignorance with orientalist stereotypes.

A map of Lebanon

But, the point is that it is not just Westerners who are struggling to work out what the Iranians want.

Arabs are too, and just like Europeans or Americans, they find a good analogy very useful.

Sharing a religion can take you only so far. The Iranians and the Arabs are not the same people.

They do not just have a millennium or more of cultural differences between them. They also have a long history of fighting each other.

But, at this particular point in history, President Ahmadinejad is proclaiming that Iran is on Lebanon's side.

And plenty, though not all Lebanese, agree with him.

High tension

At a rally that was more like a rock concert in south Beirut, thousands cheered and chanted death to Israel, and the Persian words for "welcome" when he appeared on stage.

Supporters of President Ahmadinejad in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon
In Bint Jbeil, President Ahmadinejad's speech was met with huge support

The crowd was, as far as I could see, completely made up of Shia supporters of Hezbollah.

But Lebanon's other Muslim sect, the Sunnis, and many of the country's Christians, are not at all happy about the Iranian president's visit.

Hezbollah, already the most powerful single group in Lebanon, has been given an extra swagger by the famous visitor.

Sectarian tension is high at the moment.

It is widely believed that the UN-led tribunal which has spent five years investigating the assassination of the former prime minister Rafik Hariri and others, will soon issue indictments.

The talk is that members of Hezbollah, a Shia movement, might be accused of the killing of Mr Hariri, who was a Sunni.

That is political high explosive in Lebanon.

Gloomy outlook

I went to see Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces.

It is now a political party, but when he ran it in the 1980s, the Lebanese Forces was a ruthless Christian militia.

After the civil war, Mr Geagea was imprisoned for 11 years in solitary confinement in the basement of the defence ministry in Beirut.

He is gone from no view at all, to stunning vistas of the Mediterranean and the mountains in his current home.

As befits a man in his position, he now lives in what you can only call a modern castle, high on a peak above Jounieh, the Christian port that runs into Beirut.

His security is provided by middle-aged Lebanese Forces veterans who look as if they had plenty of experience in the bad times.

We talked about the chances of another war, either between the Lebanese, or with Israel - or both.

He concluded that President Ahmadinejad was making a bad situation worse.

The Lebanese talk easily about the worst that could possibly happen.

Sometimes I think they do it in the hope that by talking, they will somehow inoculate themselves against more tragedy.

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