Monday, June 8, 2009

Lebanon's elections over . . . and Iran's approach

The votes have been cast (as the NY Times reports, even by patients brought from their hospital beds by ambulance), and the vote seems to have been conducted fairly (although "massaged" with a huge number of votes paid for by foreign money, both Iranian and Saudi - and I imagine that a few American bucks were spread around as needed) and the pro-West, US-backed coalition of parties has retained the majority. But Hezbollah, although it lost, remains a powerful player, with a huge social-political base among the growing (and generally poorer, and underprivileged) Shiite population in Beirut and southern Lebanon. And, as Haaretz reports, it has already declared that it fully intends to retain its military capacity, as an arm of legitimate resistance against Israel (which, let's not forget, has on several occasions either invaded and/or bombed Lebanon, going back to 1978 and as recently as 2006. Remember, the war that Condi Rice so infamously referred to as the "birth pangs of the new Middle East"?)

Iran is being presented as the big loser by some, but another big loser is Michel Aoun, the Christian leader who figured prominently in events of the later years of Lebanon's horrific civil war (1975-1991) and who tied his fortunes (and those of his Free Patriotic Movement) to Hezbollah's. He will remain an influential, prestigious figure in Lebanese politics (which has always been heavily sectarian as well as dominated by clan and feudal ties that are deeply rooted in traditional Lebanese society).

But, as this excellent report from MERIP makes clear, not a whole lot is really going to change in Lebanon, where the political scene is likely to remain a field of battle between pro-West (Christian and Sunni, backed by the US and its allies) and pro-Hezbollah (Shiite and Christian, backed by Iran and Syria) blocs, with local and family interests injecting heavy influence. And it may be that Hezbollah, for its own interests, has done better by losing, since a win would have forced it to play ball with Aoun's Christian allies, who comprise about half of Hezbollah's coalition.

But for the time being, as I noted yesterday, Mr. Obama has dodged a bullet. A Hezbollah win would have complicated his Middle East outreach enormously. Israel will be somewhat relieved, but still fearful of a re-armed Hezbollah, which it sees (but many experts dismiss) as Iran-in-the-Levant.

Speaking of which . . . the really big event looms a few days hence: the Iranian elections, where President Mahmud Ahmadinejad evidently is facing a major challenge from Mir Hosein Koussavi, an Islamic Revolution hero (which gives him some clout among conservative circles there) who has moderated his views (hence, his appeal to more liberal/reformist voters). Perhaps more helpfully for his cause though, even during Iran's war with Iraq (1980-1988), when he was president, he was able to navigate Iran's economy very successfully. Many of the voters now opposed to Ahmadinejad are angry with his lousy economic management, especially after the promises made during his 2005 election campaign. As you may have noticed as well, the US has more or less put its outreach to Iran on hold until after the elections. But an Ahmadinejad defeat will surely inject some new hope into that outreach.

UPDATE: Sami Moubayed publishes in the 9 June Asia Times an excellent update on the election results in Lebanon, and what the future may hold for the new government.

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