On Sunday, the Lebanese parliament postponed its election of a new president until February 11, marking the thirteenth time it has done so since Syrian puppet Emile Lahoud’s term officially ended on November 23. The ongoing political crisis has pitted the western-backed parliamentary majority, which has long supported the election of General Michel Suleiman, against the Hezbollah-led opposition, which has blocked a necessary two-thirds quorum from approving him; the opposition has further demanded a national unity government that would give it veto power. Officials fear that the continued standoff will erupt in political violence, and Hezbollah has threatened civil disobedience.
Thus far, western attempts to end the crisis have gone nowhere. Earlier this month, France boldly accused Syria of exacerbating the situation, punishing Damascus with a rare diplomatic boycott. At the time, I argued that this created an opening for the Bush administration, which could use the suddenly unified western front vis-à-vis Syria as leverage against the Assad regime, offering broad normalization in exchange for a serious Syrian-Israeli peace effort. The Bush administration, I reasoned, could thus avoid sacrificing the U.N.’s investigation into the Hariri assassination—in which Damascus has been implicated—which has long been seen as the price for Syrian-Israeli peace.
Yet on his recent tour of the Middle East, President Bush barely mentioned the crisis in Lebanon, instead emphasizing the pipedream of Israeli-Palestinian peace as the primary means for countering Iran. This approach was disastrous, opening the door for players far less committed to containing Iran to mediate—a boon for Iran and its allies.
Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa’s mediation attempt in Beirut last week is case-in-point. Moussa’s plan provided for Suleiman’s immediate election, further denying the ruling collation an absolute majority and the opposition a veto. These terms were largely favorable towards Syria, given that they blunted the power of the anti-Syrian majority while enhancing the role of Suleiman, who is seen as friendly towards Syria’s interests in Lebanon. When majority leader Saad Hariri endorsed the terms of the proposal earlier this month, it represented a victory for the pro-Syrian opposition.
But the opposition was hardly satisfied. After Moussa departed, Lebanese Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri of the Shiite Amal Party declared the initiative dead, insisting that Arab foreign ministers draw up new terms—ones much more favorable to the Hezbollah-led opposition. Shortly thereafter, Berri announced a new condition for resolving the crisis: reconciling Syria with Saudi Arabia. In this condition, Berri mortgaged Lebanese stability on Iranian geostrategy: Saudi-Syrian rapprochement would represent a breach of the U.S.-Saudi alliance and strengthen Iran’s regional position. Indeed, it is hardly coincidental that Berri’s statements included a profession of support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
As I have written previously, the fate of Lebanon is critical to countering Iranian ascendancy. The longer the Bush administration waits to address the current Lebanese presidential crisis seriously, the better the terms of a future political settlement will be for Iran and its local allies.