BEIRUT: After six months of vacuum, Lebanon watchers have nothing to go on to justify optimism that the country’s bickering politicians can elect a head of state.
Pinning their hopes on a regional rapprochement between the West and Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other to solve Lebanon’s intractable problems, those hopes were dashed as Iran and the West decided to extend talks on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program until the middle of next year.
But analysts are divided over whether the extension of negotiations between Iran and the West will perpetuate the status quo in Lebanon, or if the positive atmosphere surrounding the talks will spur dialogue between rivals Hezbollah and the Future Movement.
Despite the limited prospects for an immediate deal, they say Iran is unlikely to make significant sacrifices limiting the power of Hezbollah, but may seek to offer milder concessions through lenient terms on the presidential race as a sign of goodwill to its negotiating partners in the West.
Such a deal would pose a political risk for Hezbollah as it may alienate its chief Christian ally, Gen. Michel Aoun, who is the party’s candidate for the presidency.
Hezbollah would have to placate the Free Patriotic Movement leader, whose support is crucial amid the absence of a broader rapprochement with the resistance party’s Sunni rivals.
“In general, any agreement or understanding will have an impact on the whole region,” said Mario Abou Zeid, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Yet it’s still premature,” he added.
Lebanese politicians have failed to elect a president 15 times in Parliament since the end of former President Michel Sleiman’s term in May. Various initiatives have failed to come up with a consensus candidate amid the ongoing regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the external patrons of Lebanon’s two main political factions.
The March 8 bloc, consisting of Hezbollah and its allies, proposed Aoun as their candidate, an option seen as provocative by the March 14 coalition, which itself proposed Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea. Geagea is also an unacceptable candidate for his rivals.
Analysts say regional patrons will ultimately decide on the Lebanese president, despite claims by both sides that it is an internal Lebanese decision. Hezbollah publicly says Iran is not involved in the discussions about the presidency.
“The presidential election is a matter of a regional consensus rather than a consensus among Lebanese,” Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said in a TV interview this week.
“[If] any agreement could have been reached internally, we would have had presidential polls three or four months ago,” Abou Zeid said. “The regional powers are the main decision-makers”
Imad Salamey, political science professor at Lebanese American University and author of a book about Lebanon’s system of government, said the positive atmosphere and “significant concessions” on both sides in the nuclear negotiations will likely reflect on the situation in Lebanon.
“All these positive signs will be reflected eventually in a greater rapprochement between both parties, including the Saudis, by coming to a closer agreement on other regional issues whether in Iraq ... or in Lebanon,” he said.
Salamey cited signals from Saudi Arabia encouraging dialogue between Lebanon’s various factions as a sign that the regional talks could help ease the dialogue between Hezbollah and the Future Movement, eventually leading to the election of a president.
“We’re moving in a positive direction but very cautiously,” he said.
But even if Iran were to encourage such a dialogue or make concessions on the presidential front, it is unlikely that such a dialogue would cover the fundamental points of disagreement like Hezbollah’s arms or the party’s involvement in the Syrian conflict fighting alongside President Bashar Assad.
“As long as the person is supportive of Hezbollah maintaining its arms in the country and it is not challenged in any way, then this is what Hezbollah really seeks to have in a presidential figure,” Salamey said.
Moreover, Hezbollah is part of Iran’s strategic posture in the region, one that it is not inclined to separate from the negotiations and weakening its hand.
“Iran negotiates its national interests through proxy groups and the weapons of Hezbollah and their strategic role in Syria and deterrence role toward Israel remain part of the overall Iranian regional strategy,” he said.
That is why the presidential election is one area where Iran may offer concessions as a sign of goodwill to its negotiating partners.
“I think Iran’s strongest negotiation leverage is its support to groups like Hezbollah and this isn’t easy to give away, but it can negotiate by giving partial [concessions] like the conditions to elect a president,” he said.
But not all see the extension of the nuclear deadline as necessarily positive for Lebanon or increasing the possibility of a deal on the presidency.
“It’s possible but it’s not very likely,” said Sami Nader, director of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs. “In my view the extension is an extension of the stalemate, of the current balance of power.”
Nader said the extension subjected a nuclear deal to obstacles from hard-liners on both sides – by the Republican Party in the US, which is opposed to a deal with Iran and swept through recent midterm elections there, and by hard-liners in the Islamic Republic if sanctions are not lifted quickly.
The extension also means that Iran will want concessions in exchange for every card it has, including the presidential race in Lebanon, even if Hezbollah is interested in a deal.
“Hezbollah is under attack today and the narrative of the resistance is losing ground,” he said, adding that the party is feeling the pressure of attacks on its base and the influx of Syrian jihadists.
“In Lebanon in particular they’re on the defensive and I don’t think you want to take a risk to alter the balance of power.”
“They need a political consensus,” Nader added, saying such a desire was evident in reports of a possible Hezbollah-Future dialogue. “This is where I see the only hope.”
But he said Iran’s need to protect its assets in the region through the negotiations will hamper such efforts.
In addition, Hezbollah itself could lose key Christian support if it agrees to a consensus candidate other than Aoun.
“They won’t be ready to give up Aoun unless they have a strong deal with the Sunnis, and that’s not happening,” he said.