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Could Maliki's departure spur Lebanon’s presidential election?

Many Lebanese are looking for signs that the departure of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq will lead to progress in Lebanon's presidential race, but diplomatic sources are quick to downplay any such hopes.
Lebanon's Prime Minister Tammam Salam (L) shakes hands with former Lebanese prime minister Saad al-Hariri upon his arrival at the government's headquarters in Beirut August 8, 2014. Hariri arrived back in Lebanon on Friday for the first time in three years, a visit seen as reasserting his leadership over the Sunni community after a deadly incursion by Islamist militants in the northeast. REUTERS/Georges Farah (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR41O2O

The Lebanese are currently waiting on the bench, torn between feelings of optimism and pessimism about the election of a new president. The catalyst of their brittle optimism relates to two internal and external factors. The first is the return to Lebanon of former Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Aug. 2 for the first time in three years, and the second is the denial of another term in office for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. These events are thought to have the potential to change the course of the Lebanese presidential crisis, based on the deep-seated belief that any decision concerning Lebanon's internal affairs is made by powers outside the country.

Hariri, the young leader of the Sunni majority, left Lebanon in January 2011 after the toppling of his government at the hands of a coalition that included the Shiite political powers, Michel Aoun (leader of the Christian majority) and Walid Jumblatt (leader of the Druze majority). A new government, led by Najib Mikati, was then formed. The Lebanese explanation for the toppling was not limited to mere parliamentary calculations. Rather, many thought it might be a Syrian-Iranian coup against Saudi Arabia in Beirut with American acquiescence. It was also rumored that a quiet US-Syrian-Iranian agreement had been reached at the end of 2010 whereby Maliki was granted the premiership in Baghdad, and Hariri was ousted in Beirut. Because politics in the Middle East often takes violent turns, Hariri decided to leave Lebanon at that time. After his absence for an extended period, speculation circulated that Beirut lacked adequate security, and Hariri’s life would be in danger if he were to return.

Three years and a few months eventually passed, during which time the Lebanese and regional situations changed. The Mikati government was toppled in March 2013, and a new one was formed in February 2014. In spring 2014, the mandate of the sitting president drew near and then ended on May 25 without a successor being elected, inaugurating the onset of the current crisis. Shortly thereafter, the incursion of the Islamic State (IS) into northwestern Iraq on June 10 imposed a new reality on the region and possibly made the Lebanese crisis reliant on the Iraqi government reaching consensus on a new leader. If Tehran had demanded that Maliki remain in office, such insistence would be countered by American-Saudi inflexibility in Beirut. Iranian leniency, however, could defuse the Iranian-Saudi conflict, and possibly have a positive impact on the Lebanese crisis.

Therefore, within the scope of one week, the Lebanese perceived the return of Hariri and the replacement of Maliki as signs. They rushed to come up with their own explanation: The long-sought consensus was imminent. Saudi-Iranian interests intersected, under US sponsorship, over fighting the threat of IS. This provided cover allowing Hariri's return to Beirut and the possible formation of a non-provocative government in Baghdad. The next step would be the election of a Lebanese president.

Informed political and diplomatic circles are keen, however, to play down Lebanese optimism. Regarding Hariri's return, a source within his party affirmed to Al-Monitor, “It came to pass [absent] external political factors.” This was confirmed when Hariri announced after his return, “There [is] no need to meet with Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah.”

A source in circles close to Hezbollah confirmed as much to Al-Monitor, stating, “Leading members in the most powerful Shiite organization in the region worked around the clock over the past [few] days to study everything related to the return of Hariri. They analyzed every word he said, fact-checked the diplomatic data related to his return and studied the indirect messages he addressed to Hezbollah. A decision was [then] made to completely ignore the return of Hariri and not mention it, positively or negatively. [It was also decided] that neither Hezbollah nor its officials would issue an official stance or statement, which reduces the likelihood of a broad solution.”

Middle Eastern diplomatic circles in Beirut were keen on dealing with the events in Iraq in the same spirit. A source, who requested anonymity, told Al-Monitor, “Ousting Maliki in Baghdad is not related to an Iranian-Iraqi intersection of interest. It is the result of Iraqi internal calculations and factors.” The source continued, “In the last two weeks, international communications over the Iraqi issue intensified, and the threat of the Islamic State, which has been expanding toward Erbil and Baghdad, worsened. The fate of Maliki, however, was purely the decision of the Shiite religious guide Ali Sistani, who met with Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, over the past days and Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Afterward, Iranian officials were surprised by the decisive stance of Sistani, who completely rejected Maliki, with all the connotations that this stance implies and repercussions it has at the [national domestic] level as well as on the Shiite [religious] level in Baghdad and Tehran. This led to the settling of the issue and the naming of Haider al-Abadi as prime minister.”

The subjective analyses are inclined toward reducing Lebanese optimism. Hariri's return was not the fruit of an Iranian-Saudi agreement, and the ousting of Maliki was not the first step of a comprehensive deal. Despite this, many Lebanese still insist on being optimistic and are convinced that an American-Saudi-Iranian solution for the presidential crisis remains imminent.

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