Wildcard in Iran election: Obama

His Cairo speech, combined with other early decisions, may have influenced Lebanon's election Sunday – and could have an impact on Iran's presidential vote Friday.

Mohammed Zaatari/AP
Women watch the speech of US President Barack Obama as they stand in a spice shop in Sidon, Lebanon, on June 4, 2009. The speech had an effect on Lebanon's recent election, and may affect the outcome of Iran's.

The verdict is in: Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world last week has already had an impact, specifically in the surprise victory Sunday of a pro-Western coalition in legislative elections in Lebanon.

With the unexpected defeat of Lebanon's Hizbullah-led coalition, some regional analysts are wondering if Mr. Obama's approach – a respectful stance towards Islam, coupled with a firm rejection of the kind of violent extremism that has attracted some Muslims – might also have an impact in Friday's presidential elections in Iran.

Signs of an early impact don't stop there. Consider Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hastily called policy speech this Sunday, which some experts in Israeli affairs say would not be happening except for the new American president's approach to the region – and many Israelis' attraction to it.

You might call it the Obama Effect.

"The Lebanese elections came out the way they did because of the Obama speech," says Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and member of the advisory council of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates for Mideast peace. "The impact was particularly swift and strong in the Arab world."

With Obama's Cairo speech coming as it did just three days before voting in an election the US had been closely monitoring, the presidential discourse acted something like a campaign closer.

While other local factors were certainly at work in Lebanon, some analysts say Obama's less aggressive stance on democracy than George W. Bush's, along with his case for modernization of Muslim countries through international cooperation, made a pro-Western political perspective palatable again.

Result? A surprise win by Lebanon's pro-Western March 14 coalition.

Some of these same factors are at work in Pakistan, some analysts believe, where not just cosmopolitan Karachi businessmen but also humble villagers in culturally traditional areas are starting to take back ground lost to Taliban and pro-Al-Qaeda groups.

While Obama's speech was a high-profile act, some observers say any impact it has had can only be explained in the context of other Obama administration initiatives. Among them:

•Obama making one of his first official acts the naming of George Mitchell as his Mideast envoy;

•The president's Nowruz (Persian New Year) message to Iranians in March;

•The administration's quick attention to the Pakistani refugees left homeless by fighting with advancing Taliban forces;

These factors and more laid the groundwork for Obama's words from Cairo to fall on receptive ears.

As important as Obama's speech was, "It was Joe Biden who carried the [Lebanese] election," says Steven Spiegel, director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA.

Referring to Vice-President Biden's March visit and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's earlier stop in Lebanon, he says that kind of sustained attention from a new administration helped Obama's words ring true to skeptical Muslims.

"Everybody was complaining about Biden and Clinton in Lebanon," that it would be seen as interference or heavy-handed, adds Mr. Spiegel. "But now everyone is saying it was a brilliant move."

Any "Obama factor" in Iran's presidential contest will be difficult to gauge, Iran experts say, because the overriding issue in the campaign is the economy and what is widely perceived domestically as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's poor stewardship of it.

But even in that context, Iranians who see Obama's promise of closer international ties (as opposed to the threat of deeper economic sanctions) as one avenue to economic recovery may reject Mr. Ahmadinejad's confrontational style as better suited to the era of President Bush.

Still, even some regional analysts who found strong elements in Obama's speech say they are dubious of any short-term impact as concrete as influencing an election.

"It's hard for me to imagine a significant number of Lebanese voters changing their mind based on what President Obama said in Cairo a few days before," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

If anything, Mr. Phillips sees a better likelihood of some marginal influence in Iran. "The sanctions have had an impact on the Iranian economy, and the poor state of US-Iran relations is directly tied to that," he says.

Then there are some pro-reform forces who worry that any "Obama effect" may be the comfort the president's speech has been construed by some as offering to the Muslim world's entrenched powers.

"The reaction has been largely positive, but less so among the activists who would have liked to see stronger support for democracy and human rights and some condemnation of the Egyptian status quo," says Dina Guirguis, executive director of Voices for a Democratic Egypt in Washington.

Obama's speech "indulged" a traditional interpretation of Islam, she says, in particular as it pertains to women, that is not likely to encourage a wave of modernization across the region.

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