BEIRUT — Iranian and Lebanese officials tried hard Wednesday to depict the visit of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as a run-of-the-mill diplomatic affair.
But Ahmadinejad is no typical president. Iran's ties to Lebanon are anything but ordinary. And Iran's relationship with the Shiite militia and political organization Hezbollah, which Tehran funds and arms, drowned out the platitudes.
Officials from the two countries signed humdrum trade agreements, praised one other and ate lunch at the palace of Lebanese President Michel Suleiman. Ahmadinejad presented Suleiman with a gift: a computer equipped for nanotechnology research.
But from the beginning, the choreography of Ahmadinejad's trip overshadowed his carefully chosen words. They emphasized Iran's relationship to Hezbollah, which operates as a state-within-a-state and sometimes eclipses the power of the Lebanese government.
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Arriving with an entourage that filled two Boeing 707s, the Iranian president declined to take an official helicopter ride from the airport to the presidential palace in the Beirut suburb of Baabda.
Instead he opted for a convoy of slow-moving black SUVs that waded through huge roaring crowds that gathered to greet him in the mostly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut. Hezbollah security forces guarded the way, and perhaps drove the vehicles.
Standing in an opening in the car's roof, he waved at crowds holding Iranian flags who showered him with flowers and sweets. Hezbollah took the liberty of canceling grammar school classes in southern Beirut so children could attend.
After the stuffy luncheon with the suits, Ahmadinejad broke free from his official entourage and basked in the adulation of massive crowds in southern Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold.