Analysts suggested that President Obama's rhetoric of extending an open hand to old rivals, culminating in his widely watched speech to the Islamic world from Egypt on June 4, may have pushed reform-minded voters to the polls in Iran. A similar claim was made after Lebanon's recent election, which was seen by some analysts as a repudiation of Iran's proxy Hezbollah.
Obama, in comments Friday, said he was hoping for such an outcome.
After his speech in Cairo, he said, "We tried to send a clear message that we think there is the possibility of change. Ultimately, the election is for the Iranians to decide, but just as has been true in Lebanon, what can be true in Iran is that you're seeing people looking at new possibilities."
Whether Iran's voters embraced those new possibilities remains uncertain. The Interior Ministry, which conducts the election, reported early today that incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was heading to a landslide victory, but his moderate rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi, claimed that he had won and accused authorities of vote fraud.
Still, some analysts said it is clear that Obama's approach to the Middle East and the larger Islamic world is having an impact - or will in time. But that belief is not universal. Other analysts say Obama's effect on the elections in Iran and Lebanon, if there was one, was minor given the waves of domestic dissatisfaction in those countries.
Those analysts argue that developments such as a last-minute appeal by Lebanon's Maronite patriarch caused Christians to flood the polls to defeat the opposition bloc - which included Hezbollah - and to back the March 14 coalition.
The coalition's unexpected success in preserving its majority in Parliament was seen by many observers as a victory for the West, although some experts say the group is less pro-Western than some media reports suggest.
In Iran, domestic fury over a struggling economy and Ahmadinejad's failed promises, coupled with last-minute allegations of corruption and scandal that divided the ruling elite, were more important than any comments from the West, the analysts say.
People are jaded
"Middle Easterners are intrigued by the new American president and appreciate his approach, (but) they are also jaded by decades of U.S. policy and are not yet ready to 'unclench their fists' to grasp his 'open hand,' " Lydia Khalil, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in New York, wrote on the Web site of Foreign Policy magazine. "It is too soon to tell what the ultimate Obama effect will be."
But other analysts argue that focusing only on domestic politics in nations undergoing political change makes no more sense than giving all credit to Obama.
"This sort of change doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's always a combination effect," said Rob Asghar, a fellow at the University of Southern California's Center on Public Diplomacy.
Even if Obama's positive effect on voters in Lebanon and Iran was limited, Asghar said, the new administration reduced a negative impression left by President George W. Bush.
While Bush made attempts to reach out to the Islamic world, he was generally seen in the region, fairly or not, as a Christian cowboy on a global crusade, an image that was convenient for crumbling regimes seeking a scapegoat.
"Whenever you can say, 'We are the victim of forces on the outside,' you rally people's attention from your own problems and your own competence as a leader," Asghar said. "Obama, just by what he represents, shows an America that is not inherently opposed to Muslim values. That alone takes away that effective demonizing (of) America."
Without the American bully to blame for their domestic woes, voters in places like Iran and Lebanon take a sharper look at their own leaders - strengthening a drive for change that may continue no matter who wins.
"It will be a blow for Obama if Ahmadinejad wins, because it will make it much more difficult, just as a matter of public diplomacy, to be sitting beside a Holocaust denier and semi-lunatic," said Abbas Milani, director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford. "But I think Iranians are going to want whoever (wins) to negotiate with Obama."
If Mousavi wins, Milani said, the kind of re-engagement Obama is seeking may be simpler - although Iran's president is a secondary figure to the theocratic Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, whose response is uncertain. It's also possible that Iran may experience some post-election turmoil no matter who wins, which in turn may delay diplomacy.
Neither Tehran nor Washington is likely to credit an Obama effect if Mousavi wins - it would look boastful for the Americans and be a "kiss of death" for the new Iranian administration, Milani said.
But for Obama, such a victory would be political money in the bank, Milani said, to cash in when dealing with other Middle Eastern regimes - many of them undemocratic - facing restive populations or with Israel's government, which has used Iranian belligerence as a reason to resist Obama's push for change.
"If (Obama) seems to have helped in any way to rid the world and Iran of Mr. Ahmadinejad, that will certainly give him much capital," Milani said. "Critics of Obama will have so much less power in their argument."
That could extend to places like Pakistan, Asghar said, where anger over America's use of drones to attack militants - often killing civilians in the process - has been muted since the charm offensive began. Political victory overseas also could quell criticism at home, Asghar said.
"The general criticism of Obama is he is a wimp and this is no time for wimps in this dangerous world," Asghar said. "If this world begins to look less dangerous because of Obama, if it begins to look like it's responding to America in positive ways ... then Obama has incredible capital and credibility moving forward."
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle