Lebanon Pulse

Next Lebanese president depends on Tehran, Riyadh

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Article Summary
Influential regional players, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, are so far unable to agree on a presidential candidate in Lebanon.

Despite the passage of nearly two weeks since the March 25 start of the constitutional period for electing a new Lebanese president, the situation in Beirut appears unmoved on the issue. There has been no indication of when parliament Speaker Nabih Berri will hold the first electoral session to put out feelers and explore attitudes. Furthermore, there are well-known, major difficulties standing in the way of assembling the constitutionally required quorum, that is, two-thirds of the number of deputies, or 86 deputies out of the 128.

It is clear that the “presidential deal,” as they call it in Lebanon, is dependent on external cues that are either not yet clear or have not yet reached the Lebanese capital. Given the severe split between the March 14 and March 8 alliances, the two main parties, both sides know that they cannot alone secure a quorum or a victory (requiring 86 votes) for their candidate on the first ballot or in subsequent balloting (requiring a simple majority, or 65 votes).

The electoral distribution in parliament is harshly divided. It appears that former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s team has 57 votes. His opponents in the March 8 alliance with Gen. Michel Aoun have the same number. Meanwhile, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has eight deputies, and six deputies are independent. It is thus clear that a quorum can only be reached if both major teams agree to attend.

The Lebanese know that such an agreement will only happen with the consent of foreigners. As a result, attention in Beirut has turned in the past few weeks to regional developments, and it will remain there in the coming weeks. It is clear that “foreign parties” essentially means a Saudi-Iranian agreement on holding an inaugural electoral session and presenting a presidential candidate acceptable to both Riyadh and Tehran. The candidate must also not be found objectionable by Europe, Russia and especially the United States.

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The tense relationship between Saudi Arabia and Iran requires a third party to mediate between them to find a Lebanese presidential candidate they both can agree on. Thus, the Lebanese were betting on the Western (i.e., American) opening with Iran so that Washington could play this role. The Lebanese believed that US-Iranian relations might reach a point where the two sides could exchange messages on issues in the region, including Lebanon. In other words, Washington would get input from Riyadh and Tehran about potential presidential candidates and then try to find a name on which both sides could agree. Washington would request help from Moscow and Brussels to test market the name, before notifying the Saudis and Iranians about it. If Riyadh and Tehran agreed, a parliamentary session would be held, a quorum achieved and a president elected.

Developments in recent days, however, have not been encouraging, based on direct and indirect messages among the parties in international equations. For example, the recent events in Ukraine damaged Moscow-Washington and Moscow-Brussels relations. Another negative indicator involved March 21 statements on the Holocaust by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that were anything but positive (following Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's welcomed statements on the subject). The Lebanese also consider it a negative sign that a US court agreed to the confiscation of an Iranian-owned building in New York.

The Lebanese are following Iran's openness to Hamas and the mid-March announcement, considered a new complication, that Hamas’ leadership is preparing to visit Tehran. There are also a series of other developments, such as talk of direct Turkish military involvement in the battles on the Turkish-Syrian border and of a possible confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel at the Syrian-Israeli-Lebanese border triangle.

March 18 witnessed an explosion on the Golan Heights, and April 7 brought another attack, this one at Shebaa Farms. Developments in the Saudi-Qatari confrontation and the lack of clarity about upcoming Iraqi elections directly concern Riyadh, Tehran and Washington.

All the above are complicating the Lebanese presidential election. There seems to be a new environment that tends toward delaying Western openness toward Iran and therefore a cooling of the US-Iranian relationship. This delay may be the result of Israeli and Gulf influence on the West and the United States as well as perceptions of US interests.

Any progress in Western-Iranian relations would necessarily contribute to progress in the effort to resolve the Syrian war, but that may not comport with the interests of some of the regional and international powers involved in the area. The ongoing process of self-destruction in Syria (of the state, society and capabilities), Iran’s involvement in the war, and the losses suffered by Hezbollah there, may be the ideal situation for some regional parties and beyond.

Despite progress in the P5+1-Iran nuclear talks, the United States has been unable, so far, to mediate between Tehran and Riyadh, and Moscow is saddled with problems involving Ukraine. Thus, the allies of Iran and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon do not yet have permission to hold a parliamentary session to elect a new president before May 25, when the mandate of the current president expires. It appears that, absent sudden developments in the coming days, there will be a presidential vacuum in Lebanon.

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Found in: united states, syrian civil war, saudi arabia, russia, march 8, march 14, lebanon, iran

Jean Aziz is a columnist at the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a contributor for Al-Monitor's Lebanon Pulse and the host of a weekly political talk show on OTV, a Lebanese television station. He teaches communications at the American University of Technology and the Université Saint-Esprit De Kaslik in Lebanon. On Twitter: @JeanAziz1

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