He looks like a shepherd, but he might have been the Shah. And there he was last night, the President of Iran, one of the triple pillars of the "Axis of evil", scarcely two miles from the border of that holy of holies which every American president must support – the State of Israel, or the "Jewish State of Israel", as its government claims it to be. The Shia Muslim crowds loved Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. They adored him. For weeks, they had been told he was coming. Shah-like was his welcome.
For it was in Bint Jbeil – his last stop last night – that the Shia Hizbollah destroyed at least 10 of Israel's tanks in the 2006 war, and the message was perfectly clear. The West might think it was putting Ahmadinejad back in the box, sanctioning Iran for its mysterious nuclear projects, cursed by Israel for its threats. But here was the little man himself – even the Hizbollah leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, had grovelled to him on Wednesday night – taunting the Israelis within visible distance of their border. It was a state with no future, illegitimate; it should cease to exist. He had been saying this for 48 hours.
But something rather dangerous was getting loose last night. Watching Ahmadinejad, you got the feeling that he really believed all this flannel, that the fawning and pampering and ecstasy might have gone to his head. Was this not, after all, the same Ahmadinejad who claimed that a ghostly halo hung over his head when he first addressed the United Nations? The Lebanese, clogged into their traffic jams – courtesy of the Great Man – did indeed claim he was the Shah. "How could such a silly man lead a wonderful, brilliant country like Iran?" one of them asked me last night.
Good question. But the Shias of the southern suburbs and of southern Lebanon – and the Hizbollah, who are trained, paid and armed by his country – showed their adoration at every turn. They talked of his nobility and knowledge, his wisdom. That a man whose government had just arrested yet another reformist opposition leader in Iran – Ali Shakouridad of the "Participation Front" – should be lauded in a nation which prides itself on its democracy was one of the wondrous elements of this state visit. That every local Lebanese politician who ever fired a shot in anger would want to turn up for his official lunches was the second wondrous element.
But back to basics. The last time an Iranian president visited Lebanon – the saintly but weak Mohamed Khattami – he got short shrift from the Hizbollah, plenty of crowds but no great reverence, for Khattami was a secular figure, calling for a civil society rather than an end of Israel. But Ahmadinejad is a classic "man of the people", bounding out of his armour-plated car to glad-hand the people, the ordinary man in the ordinary street. When he came close to the Bourj el-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, he waved to the Palestinians. No other president – not even the President of Lebanon – had ever done that. Choreographed it might have been. Clever it was.
And we have to remember that this was also the President who, arriving in Baghdad at the height of Iraq's post-invasion fury, declined to take the safe route to the Green Zone in a helicopter – as most western diplomats did – and preferred the dangerous airport road. Maybe he does think God protects him. A story – which I am told is true – goes that Ahmadinejad called Nasrallah during the 2006 Hizbollah war with Israel and promised to pay for the rebuilding of all Beirut if Nasrallah wanted to fire rockets at Tel Aviv. Nasrallah chose not to. But you can see why the crowds think Ahmadinejad – or "Nejad" as they call him – is a hero.
Of course, he's no hero to some members of the Beirut government who have been wondering if – in declaring Lebanon to be Iran's front line with Israel – Ahmedinejad might indeed think he has shah-like powers (if he doesn't also think he is president of Lebanon as well as Iran). And his jibes against the Hague Tribunal into the Hariri murder – which might yet get laid at Hizbollah's door – were as close to "interference in the internal affairs" of a foreign state as you can get. But the late Sayed Mohamed Hussain Fadlallah used to say that Lebanon was "a lung through which Iran breathes" – which might be true – and Lebanon's Iranian roots go far back to the days of the Saffavids. Some of Iran's greatest clerics came from the Jebel Amal area of Tyre – indeed, a number of the leaders of the 1979 Iranian Revolution preached in Lebanon.
Interestingly, it was left to Nasrallah, speaking from a video-screen while the real-life President of Iran spoke to a great crowd in the Beirut suburbs, to try to cool the anger of those – like a lot of Christian Lebanese and the US State Department – who believe Ahmadinejad's visit was a massive plot to set up an Islamic republic in Lebanon. "Iran has no single project for this region," Nasrallah said. "In Lebanon, its project is Lebanese, in Palestine, it is Palestinian, and in the Arab world, it is Arab."
Ahmadinejad went out of his way to praise Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri – son of the ex-premier assassinated in 2005 – for his role in protecting national stability and unity. Since Hariri's government is powerless to disarm the Hizbollah, this compliment may have been back-handed. And since Hizbollah's representatives in parliament hold veto powers over the Hariri cabinet, Ahmadinejad's words came free of charge. Lebanon was a symbol of dignity, he added, not least for its resistance to "the Zionist enemy". And a lot of Lebanese are fearfully waiting for the next chapter in this latter story.
But at the Lebanese President's high table, old enemies managed a rare display of unity. Did they really think, then, that Ahmadinejad actually runs Iran or knows one end of a nuclear missile from the other? Even ex-general Michel Aoun – who actually once thought he was president of Lebanon while fighting a hopeless "liberation war" against Syria – turned up to smile upon the President of Iran. There are those in Beirut who believe Aoun is a bit mad. What Iranians think of Ahmadinejad's abilities was not, of course, discussed in Lebanon. But he won the last presidential election in Iran. Or did he?