Four elections to be held over the next year in the Middle East and its outer fringes - all of them potentially affected by Barack Obama's historic win on Tuesday - could substantially alter the region's troubled dynamic. Obama's victory will be, rightly or wrongly, viewed by many abroad as heralding a tectonic shift in U.S. foreign policy. And that perception could shape the outcome of a number of different races across the troubled region, in ways that could affect long-term U.S. goals, for better and worse
Israel goes to the polls on February 10 to elect a new prime minister and parliament; voters in Iran will choose a new president on June 12; and Iraq will hold provincial elections next January, followed by a national election late in 2009. Afghanistan is slated to hold new presidential elections next fall.
Herewith, a survey of the dynamics in each:
Israel: Recurring Deadlock?
Political paralysis over the terms of a peace deal with the Palestinians was one of the key factors that prevented Israel from forming a new government after a corruption scandal forced out Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. His putative successor, acting prime minister Tzipi Livni, failed to forge a majority coalition, after a key prospective partner refused to allow any negotiations over the status of Jerusalem. Even Olmert has acknowledged that no two-state solution is possible without sharing the Holy City, which both sides claim as their capital. So fractured is the Israeli political consensus, however, that it's quite possible that Februarys election will fail to break the impasse. Israel's proportional representation system means that even if Livni does manage to fend off the powerful challenge of right-wing former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, she may still lack a majority capable of forcing through a peace agreement that will ignite fierce, and probably violent resistance from militant right-wing West Bank settlers. Israeli democracy has not given any political party or politically coherent bloc a clear majority in parliament since 1992.
Peace with the Palestinians, however, may not be the primary security concern on the minds of Israeli voters. Iran's nuclear program is seen as far more menacing than any threat currently emanating from the Palestinians. So, while a majority of voters may incline more towards Livni's two-state approach to peace with the Palestinians, it could yet be swayed by Netanyahu's more hawkish stance on Iran. And then there's the Obama factor: Many in Israel are concerned, rightly or wrongly, that given Obama's stated preference for dialogue with Tehran, his Administration may lower the pressure on the regime in Iran. If Obama's victory has left Israelis uncertain about the intentions of the next Administration, they may be more inclined to elect Netanyahu, a hawk with a track record of going over the head of a U.S. President to appeal to pro-Israel sentiment in Congress when he didn't like what he was hearing from the Clinton Administration. Conversely, an expectation that the U.S. is looking to ease its security burdens in the wider region may prompt Israeli leaders to renew peace efforts, as they did in the period that saw the Cold War end and the U.S. seek broad Arab support in the Gulf War.
Iran: Twilight of the Demagogue?
Not yet in the Oval Office, President-elect Obama is already facing strong pressure from both sides of the aisle to treat Iran's nuclear program as an urgent crisis, and to escalate diplomatic pressure on Tehran to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities. Candidate Obama on the campaign trail both advocated direct talks with Iran and vowed that Tehran would not be allowed to attain a nuclear weapon. Iran is not close to constructing a nuclear weapon, according to U.S. intelligence assessments, but the standoff right now is over whether Iran should be allowed to enrich uranium on its own soil - a right it would typically enjoy under the Non-Proliferation Treaty for peaceful nuclear energy purposes, but which would also give it the means the produce nuclear weapons fuel.
Iranians across the political spectrum have supported their government's hard line rejection of any attempt to deny their "nuclear rights," but concern has grown in Iran's political establishment over the provocative stances taken by President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, whose grandstanding, they warn, has weakened Iran's position and raised the danger of confrontation. However, Ahmedinajad faces a tough reelection battle in June, and there have even been questions over whether his health will allow him to run for a second term. If he does, he's likely to face a close fight from a united front of pragmatic conservatives, like current parliamentary speaker and former nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and reformists like former President Mohammed Khatami. And just as it was the economy that got Ahmedinajad elected in 2005 on a populist chicken-in-every-pot platform, so could the failing economy prove his undoing. Many of Iran's glaring economic deficiencies (including inflation, youth unemployment and, ironically, fuel scarcity) were cushioned during Ahmedinajad's tenure by soaring petroleum prices. Falling world oil prices will spur a crisis in Iran that will make international sanctions more painful.
Ahmedinajad clearly would have preferred a McCain victory, so that he could have used the Senator's "bomb Iran" jokes and tough rhetoric to talk up the idea of an imminent U.S. threat, urging the electorate to back him as an act of defiance. Even if Obama's victory represents more of a change in style than the substance of its policy, the confluence of economic bad times and the possibility of an improved, respectful relationship with the U.S. based on dialogue - and the prospect of U.S. withdrawal from Iran - sets the scene for an Ahmedinajad defeat. Of course, Iran's president does not make the national security decisions; that's the prerogative of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But a change in presidential style in Tehran that would parallel the stylistic change in Washington may combine to reduce the risk of escalation and confrontation.
Iraq: "Responsible" Withdrawal
Iraq votes twice in 2009 - provincial elections in January; national elections slated to be held toward the end of the year. And the outcome of those votes could have a major impact on the security conditions on the ground in Iraq, which will affect the calculation of Obama's plan to withdraw "responsibly" from Iraq within 16 months.
Obama's victory certainly helps the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, because Maliki is looking to base his political appeal on being the man who got the U.S. out of Iraq (even though he still depends on its military presence). Dealing with a U.S. President committed to the same goal (rather than with President Bush, who had openly advocated a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq) will certainly help a prime minister under pressure from both his own electorate and his influential neighbor, Iran, to refrain from authorizing a longer term U.S. presence. Neutralizing the presence of the Americans as an election issue will help Maliki fend off the challenge of rival Shi'ite parties.
Still, the organizing principle of Iraqi politics remains ethnicity and sect, with all of the main players being those connected with some form of politically aligned military muscle, and the prize being control over power and resources. As a result, elections tend to exacerbate rather than resolve tensions, and next year's races will likely see sharp political (and occasionally even military) battles between rival Shi'ite parties in the South and Baghdad; between Sunni and Shi'ite blocs in some part north of Baghdad, such as Diyala province, as well as between the government (including the Sunni parties that have participated in it, until now) and the U.S.-backed Sunni "Awakening" movement of former insurgents; and between Kurds, Arabs and Turkoman in the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk.
The security gains from the U.S. "surge" have not translated into political reconciliation among Iraq's contending factions, and next year's elections could well see a deterioration of security conditions. And while deployment of U.S. forces may be a way of helping contain any upsurge of political violence, the expectation of a U.S. withdrawal may prompt some of Iraq's contending factions to step up their own attacks on U.S. forces in order claim an American withdrawal as a victory for their armed formations. Whatever their outcome, it remains questionable whether Iraq's 2009 election season will help foster security conditions for the "responsible" U.S. withdrawal favored by Obama.
Afghanistan: Karzai, Solution or Problem?
President-elect Obama has always emphasized Afghanistan as "the right war", and vowed to divert resources from Iraq to better fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But that war effort has not been going well, and many analysts warn that one of its key weaknesses is that it is focused on propping up the Western-friendly government of President Hamid Karzai - a government many analysts see as a liability because of the corruption and ineffectiveness that have alienated it from the local population in much of Afghanistan. The weakness of the Karzai government may be one of the most important political factors boosting the Taliban's current resurgence.
With Karzai due for reelection in the fall of 2009, the Obama Administration will face some tough choices. Karzai has indicated his intention to run again, and there are no real national figures as alternatives. He could conceivably run against largely symbolic opposition, as Yasser Arafat did in the Palestinian elections of 1996. Although there was an opposition candidate, the main opposition - Hamas - stayed out of the race. So, too, would the Taliban, and the political contest would be between voting and boycotting an election associated with an increasingly unpopular foreign military presence. On the other hand, a renewed Western focus on creating a more viable Afghan government as the anchor for its counterinsurgency strategy may yet see other candidates step forward to challenge Karzai. But more important than the election will be efforts already underway to negotiate a new political compact with more moderate elements of the Taliban on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. An election aimed at reaffirming the mandate of an increasingly unpopular president may prove to be more of a hindrance than a help in finding a political solution to the seemingly intractable Taliban insurgency.
7 months ago