Media Conference Call: Parliamentary Elections and the Future of Lebanon

Media Conference Call: Parliamentary Elections and the Future of Lebanon

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OPERATOR: This is a recording of the Steven Cook conference call of the Council on Foreign Relations, June 2, 2009 at 10:00 a.m. Central Time.  Excuse me everyone, we now have our speakers in conference.  Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen-only mode.  At the conclusion of the presentation, we will open the floor for questions and at that time instructions will be given if you would like to ask a question.

I would now like to turn the conference over to Steven Cook.  You may begin.

STEVEN COOK: Thank you, and thank you everyone for joining us this morning.  I'm Steven Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council and it gives me tremendous pleasure to introduce-actually reintroduce Mohamad Bazzi to you.  Mohamad was two years ago the Murrow Press Fellow at the Council and he's returned to join us for a second time as an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies.  Mohamad is presently writing a book on Hezbollah and has done stints as a working journalist, most recently with Newsday.  I'm going to turn it over to Mohamad for a brief presentation, then Mohamad and I will have a brief conversation between the two of us.  I'll be adding my own two cents and expertise to the issue and then we'll open it up for questions.  So Mohamad, please.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Thank you Steven.  I'm going to give a brief overview of the upcoming parliamentary elections in Lebanon scheduled for Sunday.  What we have is the two main factions that are competing in this election, the so-called March 14 Alliance which is led by Saad Hariri, and that's a coalition of mostly Sunni, Christian and Druze parties and it's the coalition that's most closely allied with the United States and with the major powers, especially Saudi Arabia.  And then on the other side there's a coalition led by Hezbollah and its major Christian ally, General Michel Aoun, and also the Amal Party of Nabih Berri and several smaller parties.  Now at stake are 128 parliamentary seats.  Because neither coalition is likely to win a decisive victory, the actual outcome of the election-the actual distribution of seats becomes less important than the post-election period, and in that post-election period we're going to see maneuvering that will commence right after June 7 and that maneuvering will determine the makeup of three things:  the next cabinet, the next Prime Minister of Lebanon, and the potential veto powers of whichever side ends up being the opposition after the election.  So I'm going to focus on several post-election scenarios.

Overall, it's a very close race.  Of the 128 seats that are up, which are all the parliamentary seats in Lebanon, really only about 25 seats are truly going to be contested and most of those seats fall within Christian majority districts.  Now polls and analysts in Lebanon are divided over who is going to reach the 65 seat mark, becoming the majority.  Most scenarios have it as a very narrow race.  Right now the March 14 coalition holds the majority of about six seats, and so all of this brings us to the post-election scenarios on June 8, the day after the election.

Without a decisive victory for either side, the most likely scenario is some form of national unity government as we have in Lebanon today, and that kind of national unity government is really going to be shaped by whichever side wins the slight majority that's expected.  Now Hezbollah and its allies, the so-called March 8 coalition, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has pledged a national unity government that would grant-that is, if Hezbollah is in the majority-this government would grant the March 14 coalition a full veto power.  That's similar to the veto power that Hezbollah and its allies have over the current government.  In a cabinet of 30 members, Hezbollah and its allies have 11 seats, so they have one-third plus one which gives them veto powers over most government decisions.  Now Nasrallah has argued all through the election campaign that the March 14 coalition should make the same commitment if it wins the majority again.  Now so far Saad Hariri has refused to do that and he said that March 14 would not join a cabinet led by Hezbollah and its allies.  This brings up the question of whether Hariri is truly serious about this or is this an election ploy.  There is speculation that he has refused to make that guarantee right now because he wants to leave his supporters with the impression that this is a do-or-die election.  If March 14 wins the majority again, it's difficult to imagine that Hezbollah and its allies would join a cabinet where they don't have the veto power, and under that scenario we could be left with political paralysis as we had in Lebanon from November 2006 until May 2008.  It's also difficult to imagine that regional powers with influence over both sides would allow that to happen once again.  So if we were to have this kind of March 14 victory, then I think we're going to see some of the regional powers exerting some serious influence to bring the opposition into government once again.

We can also, later on in our discussions, we can discuss some of the potential Prime Minister candidates and also some of the other outcomes of this as Steven and I continue our discussion.  Thank you.

STEVEN COOK: Mohamad, let me ask you.  Let's just go back to this issue of Saad Hariri for a moment or two.  How-I mean, it strikes me that if the opposition is saying that they are not going to object to Hariri becoming the Prime Minister, how could he in good conscience go into opposition given what might happen should-in the election, and should one faction prevail over the other?  It seems to me it would be in his interest to go in and lead the government rather than go into opposition.  Why would he choose otherwise?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Why would Hariri choose to stay out of the government?

STEVEN COOK: Why would Hariri at least now balking at becoming the Prime Minister?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Mm-hmm.  That's a very important question and a lot of Lebanese are asking that question.  And it brings us back to the idea of is this an election maneuver where Hariri is trying to draw two distinct futures for Lebanon, whereby saying that there's no way he's going to join a government led by Hezbollah and its allies, is he going to lie and saying to his supporters that you really have to go out and vote March 14 as the majority once again, and if you don't do that then the country will be on the brink of disaster once again.  So it could be this kind of election ploy.  He has been very adamant about it, though, so even though as Hassan Nasrallah has offered this idea of a veto power for March 14 if March 14 does not win the majority again, Nasrallah has offered that veto power; and has basically also in some ways suggested Hariri as the next potential Prime Minister.  Now, Hezbollah and its allies have their own reasons for pushing Hariri as the Prime Minister, even though they're political enemies at the moment.  I think Hezbollah would view-if Hariri were to accept a Prime Minister slot within a cabinet, within a government that he does not lead, within a government where he's the political minority and not the majority, it poses all sorts of problems for him and it also poses the risk that he could alienate some of his support within the Sunni community in Lebanon.  Now, on the other hand, if he becomes the person who stands in the way of a national unity government, that also poses a different set of political problems because it could bring Lebanon to the brink of open warfare, to the brink of disaster once again as Lebanon was about a year ago.

STEVEN COOK: Well, I certainly wouldn't want to be Saad Hariri right now, but I'm hoping-that was my next question, that's a great segue.  Can you explain what the political processes and dynamics would be that would trip Lebanon into a situation of-of acute instability, where we are once again worrying about civil war in Lebanon as a result of this election.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Unfortunately, I can envision a scenario that would bring us to that point of political instability if either side wins, and that's the most discouraging part of the entire process in Lebanon.  So if Hezbollah and its allies win a slight majority in this next parliament and if they go ahead and try to form the next cabinet in the next government, and March 14 led by Saad Hariri decides not to be a part of that cabinet, then you have a prescription for political paralysis where one side will try to govern without the consent of the other.  Now if on the other hand the current majority stays in power, March 14 wins again, and Saad Hariri goes ahead and tries to form a government but he refuses to give the veto power-he refuses to give one-third plus one of the seats in the cabinet to Hezbollah and its allies, therefore Hezbollah refuses to enter the government as the junior partner, where we end up at political paralysis again and we end up with a scenario where Hezbollah might be inclined to use its weapons internally as it did in May of 2008.  So those are the two scenarios, really, where we could end up on the brink of serious disagreement and potential armed conflict in Lebanon again.

STEVEN COOK: Let me ask one more question before I offer my own thoughts on the regional implications and what Washington might do; but what is-Syria withdrew from Lebanon, as we all know, in 2005 but there is clearly a Syria factor at play in Lebanon.  So what is it that the Syrians want?  What are they up to, if anything, in the last week before this election?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Well the Syrians, I think for (unintelligible) outcome for Syria in Lebanon for the next four years.  If Hezbollah and its allies control the next government, it's going to be a very pro-Syria and pro-Iran government.  It's going to be much friendlier to the Syrians certainly than the current March 14 government has been.  There's the investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that is now a U.N. tribunal that is actively investigating that assassination, and Syria has been in the crosshairs of that investigation for several years and certainly if you have a government in Lebanon that's much friendlier to Syria, it's less likely to be cooperative, even though under the U.N. mandate it has to be cooperative but there are certain ways to work around that.  And just in general, you're going to see a much friendlier regime to Syria.  That's one of the worries of Saad Hariri in terms of joining a Hezbollah-led government as the junior or minority partner.  And also just on a personal level of Hariri envisioning-certainly, if he would take the Prime Ministership in that kind of regime, you know, there would just be a personal discomfort for him in having to be rather friendly to the Syrians as the Prime Minister of-you know, if he's the junior partner in the government.   So regionally, it would certainly be very good news for the Syrians and the Iranians if Hezbollah and its allies win the majority, even a very slight majority.

STEVEN COOK: Thanks Mohamad.  My own sense is that regionally and from Washington, everybody tends to be looking at the Lebanese elections with tremendous anticipation because they are looking at the region through the template of there's moderates versus radicals that has emerged over the course of the last couple years and which you quite rightly just articulated.  And I think that President Baiyun's (sp?) visit to Beirut last week, though well-intentioned, I think may have in some ways his statements backfired by calling on Lebanese to vote against those who are opposed to peace, and so on and so forth.  Those kinds of statements tend to provide a fair number of backlash votes, and I think the concern is now that it will rebound to the benefit of the March 8 movement.  But I wonder whether if March 8 should prevail in the elections that essentially we'll see a Doha Agreement, Round 2 in which the international actors, the Qataris, the Turks who are obviously quite involved in the negotiations-even the Arab League played a constructive role-and others will immediately try to diffuse the situation before instability gets out of control.  Again, the problem is the template by which the United States and the region is looking at the election, and my concern is that no good is going to come from it, making it extraordinarily difficult for the Obama administration to develop a coherent Lebanon policy and by extension a coherent policy with regard to Syria and the so-called radical camp.  If March 8 wins, it's likely that the-or plays a significant role in the government-the Obama administration will pull back the military assistance that it has offered to the Lebanese government.  The question really will be if there is some sort of national unity coalition, how the United States will finesse dealing with certain members of the government but not others that are beyond the pale (sp?).  Ultimately while the United States is engaged in a policy of seeking dialogue with Iran and Syria, both of whom are Hezbollah's patrons, it seems to me that it won't be sustainable over time to continue to try to isolate Hezbollah, regardless of the weapons that they control and who they're aligned with in the region.

Yes, I'd like to open it up to questions, so please, operator.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.  If you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by one key on your touchtone phones now.  Questions will be taken in the order they are received.

Our first question comes from Arshad Mohammed.

ARSHAD MOHAMMED: Hi, it's Arshad Mohammed of Reuters.  Essentially I wanted to ask you two things.  One, what do you think will be the position of the Obama administration if there is a unity government in which Hezbollah has the upper hand of the Lebanese army.  And secondly, could you give me your sense of whether Syria has in fact strengthened its influence in Lebanon over the last year or two.  Is there a sort of a retrenchment of Syrian influence in the country?  Thank you.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Okay.  I'll take the first question.  I'll take the first question.  Now, let's step back for a moment on that issue of what the implications for the United States are likely to be, especially in the event of a victory by Hezbollah and its allies.  Hezbollah seems to be positioning itself as a junior or a minority partner in a March 8-led coalition, and by that I mean if Hezbollah and its allies win the majority and they're the dominant partner or they're the dominant faction in the next government, Hezbollah has tried to position itself as the minority part of that government.  By that, Hezbollah will give far more cabinet posts to Aoun, to General Aoun, to the Amal Party, to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and other smaller allies, so Hezbollah might have quite a few seats in parliament but it will demand far less cabinet posts.  And the reason behind this, in Hezbollah's view that could make such a coalition more palatable to the U.S. and perhaps also less subject to a conflict with the new Israeli government.  Now, the U.S. has made it very clear that it would review its commitment to military aid to the Lebanese armed forces in the event of a Hezbollah victory and in the event that we have the next government dominated by Hezbollah and its allies.  So that's essentially one of the issues that concerns Hezbollah and it also concerns its allies, and Hezbollah's approach has been to keep itself as the junior partner and certainly Hezbollah is unlikely to demand the more sensitive cabinet portfolios, for example the defense ministry, the foreign ministry, the interior ministry and justice.  So those four portfolios Hezbollah would like certainly to see them in the hands of its allies.  But Hezbollah is unlikely to demand those portfolios for itself.

On the question of Syrian influence, I think the Syrians are constantly trying to exert larger influence, with greater influence in Lebanon and certainly the period of their perhaps weakest influence was immediately after the withdrawal of their troops in 2005, but pretty quickly after that the Syrians were able to reestablish (inaudible) in various capacities and make-they built that up within the immediate 2006, 2007.  And while they don't have the extent of the influence they had when they had all their troops inside Lebanon, certainly politically they're stronger than they were in April and May 2005 following their withdrawal.

Steven, do you have some thoughts on the U.S. relationship, or the potential future relationship of the U.S. to Lebanon?

STEVEN COOK: Well, I think it's clear that should the March 8 movement win, it's going to cause tremendous complications for the Obama administration.  As I said in my brief remarks after yours, Mohamad, the United States is likely to pull back on military aid to any March 8-led government, regardless of who actually holds more seats in the parliament and more seats in the government.  The problem is-the problem is that at the same time, the Obama administration is reaching out to Hezbollah's two primary sponsors Iran and Syria, and in fact Secretary Clinton hinted in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee a number of weeks ago that she was at least open to the possibility of engaging in some sort of dialogue with Hamas.  Hezbollah, as you have articulated, has been far more constructive in dealing with its political opposition than Hamas, so it would seem that that position of continuing to isolate and contain Hezbollah, regardless of the darker sides of their political and military profiles, is going to be unsustainable over time, at least as long as the policy of engagement continues.  Apologies.  If March 14 obviously prevails, then I think you're going to see more of the same and more of an American effort to, as they say, build the capacity of the Lebanese state, in particular the Lebanese military.  But again, the Lebanese situation is so fractured and can change so much, so quickly, I think that the Obama administration has to tread very carefully in not setting itself up for a variety of consequences that will be-it will regret down the road.

ARSHAD MOHAMMED: Steve, one quick thing there.  When you say pull back from military-from assistance to Lebanese armed forces, you mean essentially terminated entirely or just reduce it; and can you sketch out more explicitly what are the sort of, given the volatility and mutability of Lebanese politics, what are the kinds of positions that the Obama administration would wish to avoid taking so as not to box themselves in if things change.

STEVEN COOK: Right.  Well I think-I think by pulling back the military, I certainly would expect that it would reduce the kinds of assistance-particularly lethal assistance-that it's providing to the Lebanese armed forces because as I pointed out, there are unintended consequences here and Lebanese politics change so suddenly, we wouldn't want American equipment or equipment supplied by our allies through an American program to fall into hands of Hezbollah.  I mean, it may be unsustainable to continue to isolate Hezbollah but arming them, however unintentionally, is certainly not in the interests of the United States.  And as Mohamad pointed out, you know, there is a lot of horse trading and bargaining and things going on behind the scenes, so I think that again, should Hariri go back on what seems to be a principled position right now, the Obama administration will be caught in a complicated and difficult issue-difficult situation in which it may have to deal with Hezbollah but at the same time, not wanting to put itself in a position where it is arming a Lebanese government that could very well, if we continue along these lines of the template of radicals versus moderates, end up firmly in the radical's hands.


OPERATOR: Thank you.  Our next question comes from Silvy Lanteaume.

SILVY LANTEAUME: Hello.  If I can follow up on Arshad's question.  I-in that case, if the military aid is suspended, how do you avoid the Lebanese army from falling to the control of Hezbollah and to guard the border, especially to Israel?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Well, a little bit of history on the Lebanese army.  One of the things that happened after the end of the civil war, there was a concerted effort to rebuild the Lebanese army and to make it anti sectarian or to make it far less sectarian than it was during the civil war.  And in fact the Lebanese army is one of the few success stories of the Lebanese state after the civil war in that it's one of the few institutions that has gotten over its sectarian identity in the past 15 years.  So the Lebanese have had an army that is now-includes people from all sects and includes officers from all the different sects, and includes a leadership that is certainly not sectarian and that answers to the civilian leadership of the government.  Now, on the other hand, the Lebanese army has also spent a lot of time in the 1990's and up until last year coordinating with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon.  There's a branch of the army that still exists until today that is the coordination branch with the resistance, which is a code word for Hezbollah's activities in southern Lebanon, so Hezbollah has a very good relationship with the Lebanese army and has had one for the past 15 years, and that is unlikely to change no matter how much or how little U.S. support the Lebanese army receives.  Interestingly, in the past two or three months, Hezbollah leaders have made quite positive statements about the idea of support for the Lebanese army even from the United States.  The number two of Hezbollah, Naim Qassem, made some statements about a month ago in which quite surprisingly he basically said that they didn't really care who gave support to the Lebanese army as long as that support did not come with strings attached, and that was quite a surprising statement from a high-level Hezbollah leader.  Now one of the things we're likely to see, as Steven said, is a pullback from the U.S. government to these commitments to Lebanese military aid.  One of the things that the Lebanese army has been asking for for several years now is attack helicopters, and we're very unlikely to see the U.S. provide attack helicopters to the Lebanese army if Hezbollah and its allies control the government.  So I think on that level, we're talking about very specific things that will not materialize if Hezbollah and its allies win the government.  Now this question of whether Hezbollah will directly control the army, it's not as simple as that.  There is a structured leadership to the Lebanese army and that's been in place or that's been rebuilt for the past 15 years since the end of the civil war, and that's unlikely to be broken down by Hezbollah because there are a lot of domestic interests to keep, and those domestic interests would prevent that from happening.  And the larger fact on the ground is that Hezbollah's militia is more powerful and better equipped than the Lebanese army in a lot of ways and so Hezbollah doesn't really need direct control of the Lebanese army to pursue its priorities in Lebanon.  So I think it's sort of a-it's more complicated than just a question of Hezbollah taking control of the army.

SILVY LANTEAUME: So at what point do you think the Obama administration is going to think, Okay, from now on we pull back from military assistance?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: The point is likely to be if Hezbollah and its allies win the majority in this next parliament and therefore they create-they are the leaders of the next Lebanese government, of the next cabinet.  I think at that point we're going to see the Obama administration pull back in the level of military aid that it provides.  We might still see training because it's been one of the priorities of all the Lebanese security forces, both the army and also the internal security and the police.  I think we're going to see a continuation of that training, but in terms of arms, physical arms, we're probably, as Steven said, I think we're going to see a pullback on that.

SILVY LANTEAUME: Yes, but you said that it's really not clear if they win the majority.  That's my point.  I want to know-

STEVEN COOK: Let me just jump in here for a quick second.  Sitting from Washington D.C., I think we have to keep in mind that nobody in Washington ever does nuance very well.  But I think that if there is an election and if there is clearly or it's reported that Hezbollah and its allies have done quite well, I think it would be pretty quick that the Obama administration reverses course on providing weapons to the Lebanese armed forces.  You know, the number two in command of Hezbollah might have spoken favorably about U.S. efforts to train the Lebanese armed forces, but we care very much about the possibility of those weapons ending up in the hands of people we don't like.  And as Mohamad pointed out, this question of attack helicopters is likely, very likely to deeply unnerve our allies to the south of Lebanon.  So I think that any game that Hezbollah may make will in all likelihood pretty quickly terminate any kind of military program other than the training that Mohamad just referenced.


OPERATOR: Thank you.  Our next question comes from Louisa Brooke.

LOUISA BROOKE: Hi, Louisa Brooke, BBC News.  Steven, you just pointed out that Lebanese politics, that it can change very quickly, and I was wondering if both of you could talk about how stable you see both the 8th of March and 14th of March alliances and do you see them sticking together throughout sort of post-election coalition talks, or do you think one or the other side could break away, one of the groups to give them the majority they require.

STEVEN COOK: I'm going to defer to Mohamad on this, given the fact that he tends to marinate himself in Lebanese politics more than I do.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Thank you, Steven.  It's a great question and it certainly is the question that might be most important on June 8, whether if we see a very close election which most of the indicators say that it's going to be very close, and that one side will win a majority of just several seats, so then it becomes very important to try to break away some small group or some small part of either faction to take it away to the other side.  One of the factions or one of the people who is constantly switching sides in Lebanese politics is Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the largest Druze party.  Now there has been some speculation that he has certainly become friendlier to Hezbollah and its allies.  He's currently part of the March 14 coalition. I think its unlikely that he would break away, and if he were to break away from March 14, he currently has 14 seats in parliament and he's expected to get those 14 seats back, so if he were to take that number of seats to one side or the other, that would make a huge difference.  So if he were to break away from March 14, that would be a decisive kind of victory for Hezbollah.  But he's had such a history, certainly during the civil war and since then; and he's angered the Syrians so much in the past two years that it's difficult to see him switching sides at this point.  I'm sure that the Syrians would gladly like to see him allied with Hezbollah and would laugh about it, but he's unlikely to do it.  So other than Jumblatt, you know, there's no one at the moment who emerges as the leader of a faction that would break away and we have-but again, it's Lebanese politics and anything is possible, and if someone gets a great deal then they would be willing to move around.  But the more likely scenario is that the current coalition-or two coalitions will stick together as they have through the past four years and through these elections.

We should do the next question.

OPERATOR: Thank you.  If you'd like to ask a question, please press the star key followed by the one key on your touchtone phones now.  Once again, that's the star key followed by the one key on your touchtone phones now.

STEVEN COOK: Mohamad, let me ask you a question again.  I referenced the Doha Agreement that was struck last May, June.  What are the likelihood of the Qataris, the Turks, both of whom played an important role in that negotiation, the Saudis, others getting back involved in Lebanese politics should things end up in an unstable way.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: I think there's a very strong likelihood that any or all of the actors that get involved, get strongly involved in Lebanese politics once again because everyone in the region, all the regional players, really saw how destructive political paralysis, and prolonging that political paralysis in Lebanon, how destructive that becomes.  So certainly the Saudis, the Qataris, the Turks, the Iranians, they all have an interest in avoiding bloodshed in Lebanon.  Now if there are larger regional factors at play-let's say if the Iranians run up against a wall in their potential negotiations with the Obama administration, now would they be inclined to use Lebanon or use instability in Lebanon as a leverage?  That's possible.  But I think immediately after the election, if some of the regional forces and especially the Qataris, who negotiated the Doha Agreement last year, they have a large stake in ensuring that that agreement persists and, as you said, in ensuring an idea of maybe Doha 2, some sort of continuation of that agreement that would involve another formula for a national unity government.  So if we see political paralysis setting in in the weeks after June 7, then it's like for us to see the Qataris certainly moving quickly to try to refashion Doha.  The Saudis will be playing a role certainly with March 14, and the Turks may try to bridge both sides and help both sides; and certainly the Iranians and Syrians will be behind Hezbollah and its allies March 8.

STEVEN COOK: Great.  Are there any other questions from folks phoning in?

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jaq Albert-Simon.

JACQUELINE ALBERT-SIMON: Yes, hello.  I'm Jacqueline from Politique Internationale.  My question concerns the Iranian election.  Does not all these subjects that we've referred to depend somewhat on the outcome of the Iranian election, and has that been taken into consideration by both sides?

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Do you want to take that first, Steven?

STEVEN COOK: Obviously, the context of everything that's been going on recently in the region has been, as I have pointed out, this template of radicals versus moderates, and the Iranian election is the thing that is looming.  Obviously there is much anticipation on this election but the Iranian one as well.  I haven't actually detected so much that the March 8 movement-they don't really have an interest in playing up this, but clearly March 14, now that it is about saving Lebanon and so on and so forth, is clearly related to obviously Hezbollah and its Iranian patron, and I think they're using that to a certain amount of political effect.  So yes, to answer your question very briefly, yes.  I think the Iranian election has to an extent had an impact on the run-up to the Lebanese polling.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: I'll make one quick point on that.  Basically, whoever wins the Presidency in Iran is still going to support Hezbollah, and you might have slightly different shades of support but there is no candidate in Iran right now who is going to pull back support to Hezbollah in any significant way.  So, and Hezbollah is fairly confident of that.  There is also the issue that support-Iranian support to Hezbollah tends to come through the Revolutionary Guards, through the Supreme Leader, and through other institutions of the Iranian regime than the Presidency, and the Iranians are not particularly concerned-or I mean Hezbollah is not particularly concerned about who ends up in the Presidency in Iran.  There might be some slight ideological and rhetorical differences in terms of Hezbollah, but I don't think that Hezbollah is particularly concerned that they're going to lose any significant Iranian support as a result of that election.  Now we might see if Ahmadinejad is reelected, we might certainly see more far-fetched rhetoric and sort of more rhetorical support for Hezbollah, but substantially I don't think we're going to see very much difference.


OPERATOR: Thank you.  Our next question comes from Jeremy Walker.

JEREMY WALKER: Hi, Jeremy Walker from the Hindu.  I'm just inquiring as to the-whether you felt the impact of the Der Spiegel report with the accusations that Hezbollah was involved in the murder of Rafik Hariri, whether that had any great impact and what sort of-whether that's made any real difference as to how things are lining up in Lebanon.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Certainly Hezbollah has been quick to deny that report.  It was published about a week ago, and March 14, on the other hand, has tried to distance itself from that report and tried to say that it was not behind any of the leaks that led to that report.  Now did March 14 gain some popular support or-especially in the Christian community?  And that's a possibility.  They're the most important votes in this election are the Christian votes, and that's where those 25 or so seats that are truly contested, they're going to fall in largely Christian areas.  And so a report that's gotten quite a bit of attention in the Lebanese media, the Der Spiegel report, so that report might sway some Christians or might some reinforce some fears they have about Hezbollah, but March 14 hasn't-at least publicly hasn't really used that report in its campaign over the past week.

JEREMY WALKER: Okay, thanks.


OPERATOR: There are no more questions at this time.

STEVEN COOK: Well we've been on the line now for about 45 or 50 minutes or so, so unless there are any other questions, we'll give it one last shot.  Operator, any other questions?

OPERATOR: I'm not showing any questions at this time, sir.

STEVEN COOK: Well then I think we'll wrap it up, and thank you all for calling in and spending this time with us, and in particular thank you to Mohamad and welcome back to the Council.

MOHAMAD BAZZI: Thank you Steven.

STEVEN COOK: Take care.

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