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Published: Saturday, 5/30/2009

Democracy's vagaries

DEMOCRACY, in practice, can be

fickle. Votes coming up in Middle Eastern countries could come out wrong from the point of view of the United States.

First will be parliamentary elections in Lebanon on June 7. They will also ultimately determine who will hold the presidency in Lebanon, since the parliament elects the president. Polls at this time show an opposition coalition headed by Hezbollah holding a large lead.

Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim organization supported by Iran and Syria. The Shiites are Lebanon's largest religious group and Hezbollah dominates them in Lebanon. Hezbollah held on in the face of an Israeli invasion in 2006, in the process achieving victory through survival.

Hezbollah's lead in the Lebanese elections is based as much on its social policies, with a particular stress on education, as on its military capacities.

Next come the elections in Iran on June 12. The race for the presidency there is led at the moment by Washington's least favorite Iranian, incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He faces opposition from three challengers, Mehdi Karroubi, Mir Hussein Moussavi, and Mohsen Rezai.

Mr. Ahmadinejad jangles the nerves of many Iranians, perhaps even including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. At the same time, his skills as a politician should not be underestimated. His latest tour de force included a summit in Tehran, with great visual coverage, where he conferred with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari. Both were recently in Washington to meet with President Obama.

Who knows what Mr. Ahmadinejad's prospects are in the elections, but there is definitely no reason to count him out. Iranians are basically conservative, and his pronouncements sometimes make them nervous, but he is skillful at playing on their nationalism, which can verge on xenophobia.

Israeli threats to bomb Iran, to eliminate its nuclear program, help Mr. Ahmadinejad's chances. If such bombing led to war, he could be ferocious as military leader of that nation of 66 million.

In the meantime, a Hezbollah victory in Lebanon would strengthen Iran's hand in general.

The third vote, in Iraq, is scheduled to take place before July 30. This will be a referendum on the status-of-forces agreement that determines the legality of the presence of the U.S. military in Iraq. The accord was negotiated between the United States and the government of Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki.

The vote is important to the degree that the United States, as occupying power, continues to wish to recognize the authority of the al-Maliki government with the idea of turning power over to it. The agreement might be rejected by the Iraqi electorate, as much as anything else from general discontent with the al-Maliki government. It is hard to say at this point.

Democracy in action could make a painful summer for American policy in the Middle East. Mr. Obama will attempt to set the scene with an important speech in Egypt on Thursday.

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