Wildcard in Iran Election: Obama

Article excerpt

The verdict is in: Barack Obama's speech to the Muslim world last week has already had an impact, specifically in the surprise victory Sunday of a pro-Western coalition in legislative elections in Lebanon.

With the unexpected defeat of Lebanon's Hizbullah-led coalition, some regional analysts are wondering if Mr. Obama's approach - a respectful stance towards Islam, coupled with a firm rejection of the kind of violent extremism that has attracted some Muslims - might also have an impact in Friday's presidential elections in Iran.

Signs of an early impact don't stop there. Consider Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hastily called policy speech this Sunday, which some experts in Israeli affairs say would not be happening expect for the new American president's approach to the region - and many Israelis' attraction to it.

You might call it the Obama Effect.

"The Lebanese elections came out the way they did because of the Obama speech," says Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and member of the advisory council of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that advocates for Mideast peace. "The impact was particularly swift and strong in the Arab world."

With Obama's Cairo speech coming as it did just three days before voting in an election the US had been closely monitoring, the presidential discourse acted something like a campaign closer.

While other local factors were certainly at work in Lebanon, some analysts say Obama's less aggressive stance on democracy than George W. Bush's, along with his case for modernization of Muslim countries through international cooperation, made a pro-Western political perspective palatable again.

Result? A surprise win by Lebanon's pro-Western March 14 coalition.

Some of these same factors are at work in Pakistan, some analysts believe, where not just cosmopolitan Karachi businessmen but also humble villagers in culturally traditional areas are starting to take back ground lost to Taliban and pro-Al-Qaeda groups.

While Obama's speech was a high-profile act, some observers say any impact it has had can only be explained in the context of other Obama administration initiatives. Among them:

* Obama making one of his first official acts the naming of George Mitchell as his Mideast envoy;

* The president's Nowruz (Persian New Year) message to Iranians in March;

* The administration's quick attention to the Pakistani refugees left homeless by fighting with advancing Taliban forces;

These factors and more laid the groundwork for Obama's words from Cairo to fall on receptive ears. …