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?

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.

In a nod to Obama, Netanyahu promised in a major speech June 14 that no new settlements would be built in the West Bank and said he supports the creation of a "demilitarized" Palestinian state. But the Palestinians, he added, must recognize Israel as a Jewish state. That condition is unlikely to be accepted by Palestinians, offering little hope for rapid progress in peace talks. Other obstacles: the lack of Palestinian unity and the collapse of Palestinian political and economic institutions.

Under the former government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Israel held indirect peace talks with Syria for almost a year. Damascus broke off the talks in December in protest of Israel's offensive against Hamas in Gaza. Netanyahu has shown no inclination to resume those talks.

Obama, meanwhile, announced June 24 that he would send an ambassador to Syria after a four-year hiatus. The Bush administration had cut ties in 2005, accusing Damascus of abetting violence in Iraq and Lebanon. Now, Washington hopes to secure Syria's help in stabilizing Iraq and undermining groups such as Hezbollah.

Will Lebanon's election bring calm after three years of violence?

While the result was a disappointment for Hezbollah and its allies, both sides appear to favor a consensus approach to the formation of the next government, which could help sustain a period of calm. On June 25, lawmakers reelected a pro-Hezbollah speaker of parliament, while March 14 leader Saad Hariri was appointed the new prime minister days later. Mr. Hariri is tasked with forming a new government – a process he says is under way – but Saudi Arabia and Syria, which have engaged in a series of talks recently, also have significant sway on the future of power sharing in the country.

One reason Lebanon has been roiled by political crisis for the past three years is that the rival camps are backed by Syria and Saudi Arabia, which have been at odds. The Syrians and Saudis now are engaged in a rapprochement that has helped ease tensions in Lebanon and facilitated a generally calm election. So long as the spirit of conciliation remains, analysts say Lebanon could be stable in the months ahead. But the duration of that calm depends largely on developments elsewhere in the region.

How do the protests in Iran affect possible engagement with the US?

The consequences of the protests will be felt for months or even years to come, and are likely to put a temporary cap on Iran's regional reach, while limiting dialogue with the US.

"The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, the beatings, and imprisonments of the last few days," said Obama late last month, adding that he "strongly condemn[ed] these unjust actions."

The disputed vote – after which hundreds of thousands of Iranians took to the streets and battled riot police, charging massive fraud against Mr. Mousavi – has exposed deep divisions among Iran's top clerics, and widened Iran's cultural divide.

Protesters once again clashed with security forces Thursday after Mousavi's supporters called for large marches on the 10th anniversary of the 1999 student uprising. The protests arose despite government threats that they would be met with force.

With Iran so focused on affairs at home, it is unlikely that there will be any significant changes soon to foreign policy – whether a new nuclear policy or responding to Obama's overtures – apart from blaming the US and the West for all the violence.

"At the moment nothing is going to happen, because Iranians are so gripped," says Ali Ansari, director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "In Washington, they won't like this. But basically the Iranians are very insular, and everything is dictated by the internal dynamic. So the American part of it [is subsumed by] this battle of power. [Ayatollah] Khamenei has to consolidate power in Iran. The Americans can wait ... it's a secondary concern."


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