As U.S.-Iran Game Plays Out, Lebanon Holds its Breath

It is not only Lebanon but the entire Arab world which is doomed to bide their time as the Great Game takes its course. The time, of course, is being consumed as America and Iran busy themselves with the art of pre-negotiation for the “Big Deal,” amidst the knowledge that a major confrontation is still possible. While Washington never forgets to brandish its “big stick,” it is also adding more promises to its list of incentives for Tehran.

These promises include opening a direct line of communication between America and Iran in the areas of education, culture, tourism and sports. While mocking the stick and saying that the time for international threats is over, Tehran isn’t ignorant. The truth is, that these contacts would threaten the regime’s hold on the Iranian people, who have rallied around the government because of the threat from abroad, whereas greater openness would bring renewed demands for a change in that nation’s harsh conservatism.

The path of negotiation being taken by America and Iran is about much more than the nuclear issue. Almost everything is on the agenda, such as security guarantees and the legitimacy of Iran’s sphere of influence from the Gulf to the Mediterranean. And then there is the issue of competition over Iran, between America on the one hand and Russia and China on the other. This is the Great Game that overshadows possible talks between Washington and Tehran.

It is only natural for every State to seek to preserve and perpetuate itself (according to the old saying, “When regimes change, keep your head down”). In regard to Iran, we are now in a transitional period which precedes regime change, or in the words of former U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the transitional phase between “a changing regime and regime change.”

Although the stalemate may tempt us into complacency, it also brings about political tumult, as is the case in Lebanon. [Lebanon is one of the many areas over which Tehran and Washington compete for influence. At the moment, there is something of a political stalemate between pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian politicians, and more nationalist Lebanese politicians]. Politicians try in vain to fill the political void with speeches, as they await an Arab initiative to mend Lebanese relations with Syria, while the Arab states that could spearhead such an initiative are waiting for Syria. But Damascus is also uncertain, feeling its way on the eve of major change.

If the furor that came out of the annual Francophone Summit seemed extreme, it is only due to the usual religious and sectarian disputes and the prevailing political vacuum. While the U.S.-E.U. summit gave President Bush the opportunity to shed light on two major issues: the first was the importance of maintaining a unified position on the subject of Iran and whatever carrots and sticks should be employed; the second was a response to the dominant perception that global interest in Lebanon was waning: “We [the U.S. and E.U.] worked very closely together at the United Nations to send a clear message to the Syrians: leave Lebanon alone, let them be, let them be a free democracy.”

[Editor’s Note: The annual Summit of French speaking nations, which took place in Romania this year, was marred by controversy when Romania invited Lebanon’s pro-Western prime minister who is a Sunni Muslim, Fouad Siniora, rather that its pro-Syrian President who is a Christian, Emile Lahoud. This is seen as a sign of French displeasure with Lahoud’s pro-Syria tendencies, and is an indication of turmoil in Lebanon’s Christian community].

That reply was a signal that regardless of the many issues and the tremendous flux in the region, none of these will change Lebanon’s status in the eyes of the West as a good democratic example to other countries. The American-European summit confirmed that “the advance of democracy is a strategic priority.”

No one is ignorant of the fact that these words that are emanating from the U.S.-E.U. Summit will be a relief to some people, and push them to raise their bets on Lebanon, while for others, it is proof of a frightening plot to alter the geopolitical tendencies of this small country.

But the real question is not when Lebanon will acquire true international and regional independence, but when every Lebanese citizen will achieve independence from religious sectarianism. What good is independence in the absence of a modern, secular state? Whatever we achieve in terms of reconciliation we will then lose at the hands of a dysfunctional state, while the leadership dithers and the Great Game runs its course.

What we hear in the political arena is frightening; even what we encounter on the street during an ordinary day is disconcerting.

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