TEHRAN, (AFP) – Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri arrived in Iran on Saturday on a first official visit amid a tense political stand-off between his pro-Western camp and rival Iran-backed Shiite militia Hezbollah.
During his three-day visit, Hariri, accompanied by several ministers, will meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other officials, state media reported.
Hariri’s visit is “historic and very important,” Iran’s ambassador to Beirut, Ghazanfar Roknabadi, told the official IRNA news agency.
The trip comes a little over a month after Ahmadinejad made a similar visit to Lebanon, where he was given a hero’s welcome by Hezbollah supporters in both Beirut and in the south near the border with Israel, Iran’s arch-foe.
Hariri’s visit also comes amid a tense political stand-off between his pro-Western camp and Hezbollah over a UN tribunal probing the 2005 assassination of his father, former premier Rafiq Hariri.
The tribunal is expected to implicate high-ranking Hezbollah officials in the murder, but the party has warned against this, prompting fears of a sectarian conflict between Hariri’s Sunni supporters and the Shiite Hezbollah.
“The Islamic Republic of Iran has a natural role in the region, especially in resolving crisis and strengthening stability in Lebanon,” Hariri was quoted as saying in an interview with IRNA on Friday ahead of the visit.
Lebanon’s premier was welcomed by first Vice President Mohammad Reza Rahimi and he is expected to meet Ahmadinejad on Sunday, Iranian media said.
“This visit is taking place while Lebanon is in a very sensitive and complicated situation,” Mohammad Reza Sheibani, Iran’s deputy foreign minister for the Middle East, told Khabar newspaper in an interview on Saturday.
“The questions linked with the Hariri tribunal have drastically affected Lebanese groups and its political situation,” he added.
A Lebanese ministerial source told AFP that Hariri hoped Iran would help to reconcile the rival pro-Western camp and Hezbollah.
“This visit is important because of its timing, when Lebanon is in crisis because of the expected indictment of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon,” the source said.
“The Iranians will try to reconcile points of view between Hezbollah and Saad Hariri,” the source said.
In return, Hariri would support Iran’s “development of nuclear capabilities for civilian and peaceful purposes,” the source added.
The West and its Arab allies accuse Iran of seeking to destabilise the region and extend its influence across the Arab world, and Tehran faces increasing international pressure over its nuclear programme.
Government-run newspaper Iran Daily insisted that the Saudi-backed premier’s visit “should not be reduced to the question of the Special Tribunal as it is an internal Lebanese affair.”
“Hariri’s visit can also be evaluated as a positive change in Tehran-Riyadh relations,” the paper wrote in a commentary.
The two countries are also expected to focus on mutual cooperation, following up on 17 agreements signed during Ahmadinejad’s visit to Lebanon.
Iran hopes warmer ties with Lebanon will deliver a blow to Israel.
“Expansion of ties between Iran and Lebanon will definitely strengthen the resistance movement against the Zionist regime,” Sheibani said.