Friday, November 23, 2007

The Witching Hour

At midnight tonight, Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's term in office will come to an end, and barring a miracle, the country will enter into a constitutional crisis, as no one has been selected to succeed him. The possible consequences of the standoff range from destabilizing to catastrophic, and the Lebanese military is already in a state of alert in the capital.

Besides Lebanon itself, the big loser in the entire affair is France, which has been engaging in a diplomatic effort since July to encourage all the parties to reach a compromise solution. In the past few weeks, President Nicolas Sarkozy has dispatched top advisors to Damascus to offer a broad deal to the Syrians (a progressive normalization of diplomatic relations with the West in return for facilitating a compromise), and yesterday placed a direct call to Syrian President Bashar Assad to discuss the impasse. Meanwhile, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has been in Beirut all week trying unsuccessfully to hammer out a deal. Here's how Le Figaro assesses the failure of Sarkozy's diplomatic intitiative:

A happy ending would have...marked the success of Elysee's strategy to reposition France in the region.

The cancellation of the presidential election, on the other hand, is a humiliating blow, even if Paris only played the role of facilitator in this affair. It will also, to some degree, be interpreted abroad as a sign of the powerlessness of French diplomacy which, despite all its efforts, was unable to weigh in on the events in Lebanon, the only country in the Middle East where she is still supposed to exercise a strong influence.

Lebanon has long been a chessboard on which regional powers play out their strategic rivalries, and the current constitutional impasse is no exception. Specifically, it sheds some light on some recent evolutions in France's regional diplomacy, and in particular its increasingly hard line on Iran. As Le Fig points out, Lebanon is supposed to be France's hole card in Middle Eastern politics. But an increasingly influential Iran, through its support of Hizbollah, diminishes France's ability to deliver the goods, as seen by today's failure.

What's more, should the situation in Lebanon result in violence or longterm instability, the heat on Iran, who will almost surely be scapegoated for it, will likely go up a few notches.

Update: According to Nouvel Obs, the parliamentary session to elect the president has been postponed until next Friday. Nevertheless, President Lahoud is still expected to leave office at midnight tonight, leaving the country with no one exercising the consitutional responsibilities of president for a week.

Posted by Judah in:  Iran   La France Politique   The Middle East   

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