Washington, Riyadh and Cairo did not waste a minute after correctly reading the results of Lebanon's parliamentary election of June 7. Even before the official results were in, they decided to press their unlooked for advantage by tapping the pro-Western camp's leader, Saad Hariri, as Lebanon's next prime minister.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's intelligence sources report that all the undercover agencies monitoring the election in Lebanon – American, Saudi, Egyptian and Israeli – got it wrong. They had been utterly certain that the anti-West radical bloc headed by Hizballah's Hassan Nasrallah would wipe the floor with the ruling pro-Western alliance. They were all therefore taken aback when both sides ended up more or less in situ – Hariri's alliance stood firm with 71 seats (compared with 70 before) and Nasrallah's bloc retained its 58.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly, neither side won or lost the election. But the appearance of success was a commodity too precious and ephemeral for Barack Obama's administration to waste. Some fast footwork was indicated. Therefore, Wednesday, June 10, US special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, stopped over briefly in Beirut to persuade Hariri to step into the premiership.
By this tactic, Washington hopes to exploit the unique chance of a rare setback for Tehran and Damascus to improve its bargaining position with both.
Deadly foes in politics, Hariri, a pro-Western billionaire whose construction and telecommunications empire is based in Saudi Arabia, has managed to maintain personal relations with his rival Hassan Nasrallah, Iran's man in Lebanon, through back-door channels. They even meet covertly from time to time.
Obama's strategic advisers, supported early this week by Saudi and Egyptian tacticians, decided that the undercover Hariri-Nasrallah relationship could pay off as a powerful lever for promoting US-Iranian ties and dialogue.
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According to our Middle East sources, the US and the two Arab rulers calculate that its setback in Lebanon would teach Tehran that its influence in Arab countries has its limits. Iran would accordingly free Hizballah to reshape a more independent pro-Lebanon posture and carve himself a senior role in Lebanon in place of simple subservience to Iran's interests. According to this calculation, Hizballah's upward ascent runs through a political alliance with his opponent Hariri.
This equation is not clear cut but close enough to be interesting. Hariri is trusted by the Saudis, but less by the Americans, whereas Nasrallah is trusted by Tehran, but less by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
All in all, the duo, which no one dreamed of just a week ago, holds the potential of becoming a Middle East nexus for testing American ideas as they develop in the forthcoming dialogue with Tehran and their impact on the region at large.
To promote the Obama administration's plan, Washington is meeting Tehran halfway on key issues. The US president has signaled his willingness to tolerate Iran's civilian nuclear program and continuing enrichment of uranium. Now he shows equal willingness to let Hizballah get away with refusing to disarm its militia in breach of UN resolutions – and even its leader's enhanced role in Lebanese policy-making.
The United States views a pact between Hariri and Nasrallah as a poke in the eye for Assad, especially after most of the candidates backed by Syrian military intelligence failed to win seats. If Tehran goes along with it, Damascus will have little choice but to fall in line behind the US-sponsored pair.
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This plan still faces at least three obstacles before it can take off:
1. Neither Tehran nor Nasrallah has given it the nod yet. Much depends on how Iran's presidential election on Friday, June 12, turns out. (See our article on Iranian elections in this issue.)
Paradoxically, a first-round victory for President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad will ease its path to acceptance since Obama administration representatives have been quietly in touch with him for some months and therefore hope to shorten the path to an understanding.
The real obstacle to Obama's plans would be the failure of any Iranian candidate to win more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, making a second round mandatory.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Iranian sources note that, unlike the rules in other countries, the Iranian constitution does not specify any timeline for a runoff election, stating it will take place when the Islamic Republic of Iran is ready.
Therefore if regime heads, led by supreme ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, are not satisfied with the results of round one, they can hold up the run-off for many weeks until the desired result is assured.
A long delay could spark outbreaks of violent disaffection over the protracted uncertainty in the streets of Iran.
It would also indefinitely postpone the beginning of the US-Iranian dialogue and put a decision on Washington's scenario for a Nasrallah-Hariri pact in Lebanon on hold
2. On the plus side, Hariri himself has not formally accepted the American plan. But when asked by US contacts, he has said he likes it.
Wednesday, June 10, Hariri surprised everyone by inviting Nasrallah for talks on the future government in Beirut. He even publicly praised the Hizballah leader for his restrained response to his election defeat. Asked if Hizballah would be required to dismantle its arms, Hariri did not reply.
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On the minus side, our sources point out that even if Hariri decides to go along with the American plan, it is not entirely certain that he can be trusted to stick with it.
Middle East observers rate him a weak, vacillating character. Notwithstanding his important position in Beirut as the son of the prominent former prime minister whose assassination in 2005 cast Lebanon in turmoil, his vast inherited wealth and Saudi support, Hariri junior tends to hesitate when firm decisions are called for in crises; he is also reputed to have no scruples about dealing with terrorists, including al Qaeda, to further his personal ambitions.
3. No less than Hariri, a decision is awaited from Nasrallah, who has not yet received the proposal in the form drafted by Riyadh and Cairo.
The Hizballah leader's decision could go two ways:
He could ally himself with his rival Hariri and start charting a course that would confer legitimacy on Hizballah as an integral element of the national Lebanese army. Eventually, he would fulfill his ambition of taking charge of Lebanon's armed forces and appropriating the American arms whose supply was promised after the pro-Western camp won the election.
Alternatively, he could opt for armed confrontation to seize power in Beirut and move on to step up military tensions with Israel.
According to our Beirut sources, the Obama administration's rapid response to the election caught Nasrallah unready. When Mitchell was airborne on his way to the Middle East, the Hizballah leader was still closeted with his military and security advisers, uncertain how to manipulate its results for profit.
Most of his advisers argued that, having failed to win a majority for taking office in Beirut, Nasrallah must go to Plan B, which was drafted for this very eventuality. Under this plan, Hizballah would let some months go by and then stage a coup d'etat to make up for its shortfall in the ballot box.