Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Ahmadinejad in Lebanon: Entertainment as Usual
Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his first visit to Lebanon since taking office in 2005. Prior to the trip, the international press kept itself busy with speculations on what sorts of antics to expect from the controversial media darling.
Yes, I said "media darling". More on that later.
The speculations ranged from paranoid to downright delusional. Some emphasized Iran and Hizbullah's "evil plans". On the other end of the spectrum, Iran's state-run Press TV claimed that the trip would "unite [the] Lebanese."
One of the primary hang-ups were reports that Ahmadinejad's visit would include a trip to Fatima's Gate to hurl stones at the Israeli border. Fears that this would spark an international incident, perhaps armed confrontation, ran rampant. One writer even conveyed a sense of admiration at the thought of Ahmadinejad venturing to the southern-most point of the country, "where he will be standing in the cross-hairs of Israeli rifles." And this was all in spite of the fact that even Hizbullah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah flatly denied that any such rock-slanging was on the agenda.
Which brings me back to my labeling Ahmadinejad as a "media darling". What struck me the most as I read these reports was that it seemed that the media wanted this to happen. They wanted to see Ahmadinejad, clad in his signature khaki members-only jacket, toss a few stones at that fence, all in the name of showmanship. Recounting Ahmadinejad's antics has become a national pastime of sorts, as evidenced by the annual spectacle of his trips to the UN. We're all sitting on the edge of our seats, waiting for him to say or do something outlandish or inflammatory so we can head to our computers and deconstruct his statements and actions. He's that guy you invite to the party not because you particularly like him, but you know that he'll do something ridiculous and you'll have a great story to tell your friends and coworkers on Monday.
As amusing as Ahmadinejad-bashing may be, this preoccupation often draws attention away from more pertinent issues, and it seems to be part of a wider attempt to discredit Iranian regional influence and legitimacy. While it is true that he isn't too popular back home, "Lebanon one of the very few places in the world where Ahmadinejad is welcome." Even my friend Omar, a Palestinian refugee who generally prefaces political discussions with an assertion that all politicians are terrible, has a favorable impression of the Iranian President. According to Omar, in the next few months they'll be able to have electricity 24/7 because of Iranian funding. These sorts of details - and an examination of their wider implications - are often missed when we're too busy making fun of or demonizing or debunking superficial public displays.
Which is, of course , exactly what is happening. Though Mahmoud didn't throw rocks, Nasrallah gave him an assault rifle which was purportedly seized from the IDF during the 2006 war. It didn't take long for the IDF to assert that the rifle model was too old and outdated to have been seized in 2006, thus implying that Nasrallah is a liar and that Mahmoud was given a counterfeit souvenir. But I guess I'm forgetting that, in spite of its pretensions, news is in many ways a form entertainment. And I think it's pretty obvious that the average reader is more interested in hearing about souvenir assault rifles than complicated regional politics.