Retired Ambassador Mark Johnson of the Montana World Affairs Council based in Missoula says two events in the past week have signaled a change in the overall picture in the Middle east, the Iranian elections, and the decision by the United States to become directly involved in the Syrian civil war.

"It was quite a stunning upset in the 11th Iranian presidential election was announced, and an underdog, a man named Hassan Rouhani, who is a cleric, has won with more than 50% of the vote, which means that there will not be a runoff," Johnson said. "What makes this significant, is that none of the hard-line conservative candidates, those favored by the Supreme leader did well. In fact, the closest guy came in a distant third, while others of that persuasion were even further behind. I'm watching Iranian TV right now, and there's a lot of celebration in the streets of Tehran."

Johnson said the upset victory is both good news and bad news.

"On one hand, this will perhaps signal a new era in terms of tone, and the ability to have some kind of a dialogue. but on the other hand, I don't want to get carried away with giddiness, because after all the Supreme leader, Khamenei, makes all the decisive calls in Iran," Johnson said.

Johnson said the events in Iran are directly related to those in Syria, where President Obama has announced military support of the rebels in that country.

"Iran is heavily invested in Syria and its outcome," Johnson said. "On Friday, a spokesman for President Obama announced that the U.S. would be providing lethal aid to the rebels opposing President Assad. This is a decision that will controversial in many ways. The stakes had become so high that the President really had no choice.

Johnson said that Syria is at the epicenter of U.S. strategic concerns in the Middle East.

"Right next door to Syria we have Lebanon, controlled politically by the Hezbollah terrorist group, and then we have Iraq, which is engaging in Syrian activities," Johnson said. "We have Turkey, an ally and a NATO member, which is also under a lot of pressure. It's interesting that on the day that the White House announced this increase in lethal arms, that the United Nations said that over 93,000 people had been killed in this civil war. So, Syria represents a threat to our entire strategic position in the Middle East. Despite the fact that American troops are conducting training exercises inside Jordan, it is highly unlikely that any U.S. troops will be engaged inside Syria."

Johnson said that speculators are already taking advantage of the increasing unrest by a spike in oil prices.

"Oil prices will spike just because of the political psychology," Johnson said. "The speculators will now rush in, as the jackals that they are, and they will try to manipulate the prices. However, there's a lot of capacity in the world, and the U.S. is coming on strongly with new sources of oil. So, it shouldn't be the kind of deal-breaker, show-stopper that we had back in the 1970's, witgh the OPEC embargoes, and so forth."

Retired Ambassador Mark Johnson

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