How Iran's election – and three others – have reshaped Mideast
Briefing: With newly installed or reinstalled leaders in Iran, Lebanon,
Israel, and the US, the balance of power has shifted between a US-allied bloc and the 'axis of resistance.'
Why are these elections important?Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Iran: On June 12, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeated his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi, by an official margin of 2 to 1 – a vote that has been bitterly, and sometimes violently, contested on Iran's streets. The turmoil has underscored deep rifts in Iranian society, raising questions about the Islamic republic's long-term viability.
Israel: In January elections, Benjamin Netanyahu came to power as prime minister of a center-right coalition government. Arabs were less than pleased, believing Mr. Netanyahu's hard-line approach would slow progress toward peace with the Palestinians and Syria.
Lebanon: On June 7, the US-backed March 14 coalition narrowly beat the opposition, which is led by the militant group Hezbollah. That means March 14 will retain the upper hand in parliament – essentially preserving the status quo.
US: The 2008 election was widely anticipated in the Middle East, with many hoping for a new US approach that would restart the Arab-Israeli peace process, stabilize Iraq, and explore engagement with Iran.
How do they change the region?
The most significant change could come from Iran, which is a strong supporter of Hezbollah and the Palestinian militant group Hamas – both of which Israel sees as threats. Mr. Ahmadinejad has famously said the Jewish state would be "wiped off the map" – part of a hard-line foreign policy that has raised suspicions about the goal of Iran's nuclear program.
"The election in Iran is the most important," says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Center of Lebanon at the American University of Beirut, "not because of the result, but because of the manipulation. Elections in the Middle East, other than in Israel, are not usually the mechanisms that make policy. They are interesting for reflecting the political culture in which they occur."
The results of the four elections shore up some US goals in the region, while complicating other initiatives.
The Middle East today is largely shaped by the struggle between two opposing camps. Iran, Syria, and allies such as Hezbollah and Hamas make up the "resistance front." The other camp includes the US, Israel, and Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan – a Sunni trio uneasy about the growing influence of Shiite Iran.
The vote in Lebanon, which is a microcosm of various Middle East forces, was seen as critical in determining the regional balance of power between these two camps. Washington applauded the March 14 bloc's win, but Hezbollah remains the country's most powerful political force, restricting the bloc's ability to maneuver.
President Obama's willingness to take a firm stand with Israel on certain issues, meanwhile, marks a distinct departure from the Bush administration. He and Netanyahu aren't exactly two peas in a pod. Even if they were, the Israeli leader would have to consider the demands of his right-wing allies or risk having his government fall apart.
What does it mean for Arab-Israeli peace?
Though faced with the immediate challenges of a global financial crisis and two wars, Mr. Obama has confounded expectations by emphasizing the importance of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. In his June 4 address to the Arab world in Cairo, he spoke at length about the conflict.
But Arabs are looking for action. The initial test of Obama's resolve, many say, lies in his ability to freeze Israeli settlements in the West Bank.