War Stories

Obama Couldn’t Sway the Iranian Election Even if He Wanted To

But a lot rides on what he does after the vote.

After Richard Nixon resigned as president in August 1974, Soviet officials went around asking American journalists and diplomats in Moscow when Sen. Henry Jackson would take over the White House.

In Soviet eyes, Watergate was mere subterfuge for a campaign mounted by the “capitalist press” against Nixon’s policy of détente. Since Jackson was that policy’s chief opponent, it stood to reason that he would rise to power in the wake of the coup.

It’s a funny story about how great powers tend to assume that their own interests play a central role in the internal politics of other countries. Yet it’s also a cautionary tale worth keeping in mind while appraising speculation that President Barack Obama’s recent speech in Cairo (or Vice President Joe Biden’s trip last month to Beirut, Lebanon) had an impact on the June 7 elections in Lebanon—or will have much impact on the coming contest in Iran.

Hezbollah’s failure to gain a parliamentary majority in Lebanon’s election certainly marked a triumph for the U.S.-backed government—but not necessarily because the government is U.S.-backed.

As NPR’s Deborah Amos reported, politics in Lebanon proved not only local, as the universal cliché has it, but sectarian. Hezbollah retained all of the seats it already held; it lost because its coalition partner, Gen. Michel Aoun, failed to carry much of the Christian community, which he was expected to attract. Saad Hariri’s ruling March 14 coalition won a majority of seats but not by a large enough margin to form a government on its own; he will probably be compelled to give Hezbollah at least a couple of Cabinet slots.

Certainly, the militants in the party will not have the degree of power—nor will its Syrian backers have the sort of influence—that they would have amassed had the elections tipped the other way. But it’s not at all clear that their power or influence will be appreciably reduced, either.

As for Washington’s influence: During his one-day visit last month, Vice President Biden said that continued U.S. aid would depend on the composition of Lebanon’s new government; President Obama, in Cairo, made a real effort at reaching out to moderate Muslims. But there’s no solid evidence that these statements weighed on the deliberations of any sizable chunk of the electorate. In any case, no party or candidate campaigned on the issue.

The June 12 presidential election in Iran is a somewhat different matter. Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main reformist candidate, has lambasted incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad explicitly for his provocative foreign policies (among other things). Mousavi wouldn’t be doing this unless he thought that taking a more pro-Western stance would win him more votes than it would cost him. And it’s a reasonable argument that he wouldn’t think this was true unless enough Iranians, perhaps including the ruling mullahs, believed that America might be less satanic now that Barack Hussein Obama is president.

Yet as Laura Secor notes in an insightful New Republic article, the biggest issues in this campaign are domestic—especially the economy—and the main divide is demographic. The election’s outcome, she writes, may turn on whether the more cosmopolitan urban youth actually show up at the polls. Most of them have boycotted past elections in protest of the corruption in the selection process; as a result, the rural poor, which forms just one-third of the population, makes up two-thirds of those who vote. Ahmadinejad has great appeal among rural voters; he bills himself as one of them, plays to their Islamic conservatism, and lavishes enormous subsidies on them. He is greatly disliked in the cities for those same economic policies, which cause massive inflation, as well as for his repression of modern lifestyles, especially of women’s rights.

In recent days, both sides have staged vast campaign rallies and passionate debates unlike anything seen in Iran for many years. These mass outpourings aren’t driven by disputes over relations with the West, much less an “Obama factor.” It could be argued, however, that the election might not have taken its current course if Obama hadn’t gone a fair distance—at least in certain quarters—toward defanging the image of America.

Whether or not Obama helped cause these developments, he can certainly do much to take advantage of their consequences. This was where George W. Bush made one of his most egregious mistakes (and that’s saying a lot). Around the time of his re-election in 2004, Lebanon was going through its Cedar Revolution, Ukrainians were mounting an Orange Revolution, reform movements were bubbling in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and elections were taking place in Iraq. Bush’s big theme at the time was promoting democracy. Some claimed that his rhetoric helped inspire some of those nascent reforms and revolutions, and maybe it did. But he didn’t follow through; he thought that freedom was the default mode of humanity and that, therefore, once its slogans wafted through the air, it needed no more tending than the lilies of the field. Within six months, all the hopes of springtime were crushed.

Obama is more of a realist; his foreign policy doesn’t revolve around a “freedom agenda.” However, it does put diplomacy back in the center of international relations, and this week’s elections give that agenda an opening.

Since Hezbollah’s defeat in Lebanon, U.S. diplomats have been pouring into Syria. Middle East envoy George Mitchell, the officers of Central Command, a congressional delegation—all are in, or on their way to, Damascus, not in a supine position (as might have been the case had Hezbollah won) but simply ready to commence businesslike relations—to do, in short, what many had urged Bush to do for years: lure Syria away from its ties with Iran, a step that could tilt the balance of power in the region.

If Ahmadinejad loses in Friday’s election (the results won’t be known till the weekend, and a runoff between the top two candidates might be necessary on June 19), similar overtures could be made to Iran. Such overtures will come anyway—because they have to come—but they’ll be easier if Ahmadinejad is out of the picture.

Bush was handed a golden platter and didn’t know what to do with it, didn’t see that he had to do something with it. If there is an “Obama factor” in Middle East politics, it will be the result of what our current president does beginning next week.