Then-U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale, center in Lebanon on June 10. (Bilal Hussein/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

A modest diplomatic breakthrough seems near in Lebanon, as the allies of Saudi Arabia and Iran appear to have tentatively agreed on a new president after an 18-month deadlock.

Under a political deal blessed by the United States, the vacant Lebanese presidency would be filled by Suleiman Franjieh, a Maronite Christian politician who has long been friendly with the Iranian-supported regime in Syria. Saad Hariri, a Sunni Muslim leader strongly backed by Saudi Arabia, would become prime minister.

The deal would mark another small step forward in the diplomatic process that has brought Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table in Vienna to explore a cease-fire in the Syrian civil war. In a bracing reminder of Lebanon’s past political torments, a Franjieh-Hariri alliance would bring together sons of two men killed by assassins. The pact, if it holds, would be a characteristic Lebanese political compromise, leaving “no victor, no vanquished.”

Lebanon has been a battleground in the region-wide proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which claim to speak for Sunnis and Shiites, respectively. But over the past year, Beirut has hosted an intriguing effort at rapprochement, which I described in a column a year ago, bringing together Nader Hariri, the Sunni leader’s cousin, and a senior Hezbollah representative. Those contacts now seem to have borne some fruit.

Another sign of diplomatic ferment in the region was an agreement Tuesday to exchange prisoners between Lebanon’s Shiite-dominated government and Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Those talks were said to have been brokered by Qatar, which has quiet contacts with Jabhat al-Nusra as well as good relations with Lebanon.

Raymond Araygi, a Lebanese cabinet minister who heads Franjieh’s party, confirmed the tentative agreement in a telephone interview from Beirut on Tuesday. He said it had the support of all key nations involved in Lebanon, including Saudi Arabia, Iran, the United States and France, as well as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia that is the strongest political force in the country.

Asked about Saudi-Iranian relations, Araygi answered cautiously: “At least we have a kind of implicit agreement to let the presidential election happen. So I think that’s a positive point.” Araygi said Franjieh and Hezbollah were both awaiting a formal announcement by Hariri of the political pact before making public statements.

A senior U.S. official confirmed the tentative agreement on Franjieh’s candidacy and said it had Washington’s support. The official described the move as “another gradual step in the direction of better regional cooperation” but cautioned against overstating its impact.

Lebanese sources said the accord was reached two weeks ago in Paris between Hariri and Franjieh. The U.S. official confirmed that an earlier meeting had taken place between Franjieh and then-U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale, in which Hale said Washington wouldn’t oppose Franjieh’s candidacy.

The U.S. official warned that the deal could be torpedoed by several factors. The most toxic could be resentment of Franjieh by other Maronite politicians who want the presidency, especially retired Gen. Michel Aoun, long backed by Hezbollah, and Samir Geagea, a former Christian militia leader. Even if these two object, the pact will likely win Christian support if it’s endorsed by the Maronite patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rahi.

“It’s pragmatism; it’s damage control,” argued Robert Fadel, a Christian member of the Lebanese parliament who is part of the coalition that works with Hariri. “The choice today is between Franjieh or a power vacuum, at a time when Lebanon is faced with multiple existential threats: the refugee crisis, the war next door in Syria and the potential collapse of the state.”

Fadel said he hopes that Franjieh will back reform of Lebanon’s election laws and a new framework for proportional representation that might break the stranglehold of traditional power blocs. Araygi said Franjieh would seek a “consensual” position on election-law reform, but he didn’t make any promises.

An Arab proverb notes the centrality that Lebanon has often played in Middle East affairs: “If she gets pregnant in Baghdad, she will give birth in Beirut.” Regional politics drove the stalemate that blocked election of a new president when Michel Suleiman’s term expired last year. Regional politics has now opened the door to choosing a successor.

It has taken the Middle East a generation to descend to its present abyss. The way out passes through Riyadh and Tehran both. The Middle East rarely rewards optimism. But consider: talks about a Syria cease-fire; election of a Lebanese president. One step, then another, away from the inferno.

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