Lebanon News

New president seems unlikely in near future

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during a press conference at the Grand Serail in Beirut, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammad Azakir)

Regional conditions are still unfavorable for the election of a new Lebanese president, with insiders predicting the vote could be pushed till autumn or even early next year.

While some may have hoped U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Beirut this week would bring about a decisive change, Kerry’s comments only sowed more confusion when he called on Russia, Iran and Hezbollah to withdraw from Syria. Kerry’s listing of Hezbollah – deemed a terrorist organization by the U.S. – alongside two major nations, caused some to question whether this indicated a new phase of U.S. policy toward Hezbollah.

A high-ranking source dismissed such speculation, insisting Kerry’s position has not changed and that he continues to call for all foreign forces to withdraw from Syria.

Political sources agreed that a regional and international consensus was needed before a new Lebanese president could finally be elected.

Sources close to the March 8 coalition said Riyadh was still blocking the election of a March 8 candidate, despite Michel Aoun offering himself as a consensus candidate and his overtures toward the March 14 coalition, particularly the Future Movement. The sources saw Future’s failure to reciprocate as evidence of foreign meddling, and that any change to the status quo either in Lebanon or the region requires a new understanding among regional and international powers.

The Saudi-Iranian understanding is still nascent, with no sign of a breakthrough in the near future, as evidenced by the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s rejection of an invitation by his Saudi counterpart to visit the kingdom.

However, all hope is not lost. In the words of one seasoned diplomat: “Striking an agreement between the two sides would be difficult today, but not impossible tomorrow, and who knows when tomorrow will come.”

Regarding relations between France and Iran, three meetings took place between high-ranking officials in the foreign ministries of the two countries to discuss regional issues. When Tehran requested a higher level of representation at the meetings, Paris declined, citing Iranian intransigence over its nuclear program, and the talks stopped.

Meanwhile, Iranian-European negotiation channels still need time, especially since the Europeans will consult their American counterparts on any future negotiations with the Islamic Republic, and at the moment the U.S. is refusing any contact until Iran signs a final agreement with the Group of Five plus One.

In light of the lack of regional accord, observers say the Lebanese presidential file has been put on the backburner, and the election may not happen until autumn or even the beginning of next year.

In the meantime, Hezbollah and Aoun have directed their attention toward the parliamentary elections scheduled for November, taking advantage of what they consider the axis of resistance’s victory in Syria with the re-election of President Bashar Assad and Nouri al-Maliki’s return to power in Iraq.

Meanwhile, observers say Aoun’s visit to Ain al-Tineh this week to meet Speaker Nabih Berri is an indicator of the possible return of coordination between the two frenemies under the auspices of Hezbollah. Sources said the former general complained of the difficulty of winning the Future Movement and Saudi Arabia’s backing for his candidacy. Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri is reportedly afraid of losing his Christian March 14 allies without securing a new Christian ally – Aoun himself.

The sources pointed out that it would not be the first time Aoun switches allegiances according to his personal interests.

Aoun was also informed that the U.S., which he relied on to convince the March 14 coalition and its regional allies to back his candidacy, did not mind amending the Lebanese Constitution to allow the election of a president if this would preserve security in Lebanon. Amending the Constitution would allow Army chief Gen. Jean Kahwagi or Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh to reach presidency.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 07, 2014, on page 2.




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