A peek at Obama's Middle East vision
By Bankole Thompson
DETROIT - Amid rising anti-Tehran rhetoric, Democratic presidential nominee
Barack Obama's senior foreign policy advisor has said an US led by Obama would
make every effort to avoid resorting to a military attack on Iran, instead
using "robust diplomacy" to curtail its nuclear ambitions.
An Obama administration would galvanize support from the international
community to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons - an objective Tehran
denies - as one of its main priorities for the Middle East, Susan Rice said in a
"Senator Obama's view is that we need to collectively toughen our sanctions and
step up direct diplomacy, so we do our utmost
politically and economically to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons
capability without resorting to war," Rice said.
National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report
December last year
contradicted President George W Bush's repeated assertions that Iran is looking
to a develop nuclear weapons capability.
"We do not know whether [Iran] currently intends to develop nuclear weapons,"
said the NIE.
"Senator Obama has been very clear in this issue," Rice said. "He believes we
still have time for robust diplomacy backed by tougher sanctions to try and
prevent Iran from pursuing its nuclear program. He has been clear that we
cannot take any options off the table."
Rice, who served on the National Security Council and as assistant secretary of
state for African affairs during the second Bill Clinton administration from
October 1997 until January 20, 2001, outlined the Obama administration's plans
to strengthen security in Iraq and the greater Middle East region.
"Our priorities include clearly and safely deploying US combat brigades from
Iraq, and working diplomatically with the Iraqis and the countries in the
region to help support a political settlement which bridges the divisions
between [Shi'ites and Kurds] and helps to stabilize Iraq," said Rice.
"Vitally important and related to that is the need to step up efforts to
counter al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which are resurgent in Afghanistan and
Pakistan. At the same time we will work with Pakistan authorities to root out
resurgent al-Qaeda Taliban elements in the Pakistan's border regions."
Nazar Janabi, a Next Generation fellow at the Washington Institute for Near
East Policy, a generally hawkish think-tank, said it is possible an Obama
administration could be in a unique position to bridge the gap among warring
factions in Iraq.
"The challenge would be to find the common ground between these factions. It
seems to me that striking a balance without sacrificing some of the US key
interests in the Middle East would be very difficult without some form of
long-term engagement and presence," Janabi said. "That said, it is my
understanding that Mr Obama has a better image in the Middle East and is likely
to be more credible to the audience there."
Janabi said Obama's plans to withdraw US troops from Iraq "responsibly" were a
very good idea. "However, this might mean maintaining a sizable contingent for
a few years down the road ... The security achievements in Iraq are still
fragile and still could go either way depending on the circumstances."
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Rice said Obama would be "supporting the
Israelis and Palestinians in their efforts to broker a lasting peace based on
two states - the Jewish State of Israel and the Democratic Palestinian State -
living side-by-side in peace and security."
Osama Siblani, editor and publisher of the Arab American News in Dearborn,
Michigan - home of the largest concentration of people of Middle Eastern
descent outside of the Middle East - said Obama will face an uphill struggle
convincing the Israeli government to work for peace.
"I don't see Obama as a broker. He needs a partner first. You must first have a
partner which is willing to give and compromise before making any peace deal,"
Siblani said, adding that it is in the interests of both nations to reach a
deal which creates two peaceful states.
But Siblani said the "carelessness and procrastination" of the Bush
administration, had made it unlikely that a Palestinian state will ever be
created. "There is the question of refugees, Jerusalem, and the lack of
resources in Gaza and total poverty there that needs to be addressed. You have
to have guarantees for peace and security from both states."
Should Obama get elected, Siblani said he will have some leverage because "a US
president carries a lot of weight" in the Middle East and he will likely have a
Democratic Congress to help him push things through.
After the fall of key US ally Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan has elected Asif Ali
Zardari, widower of the nation's political star Benazir Bhutto, as president.
It is unclear what Pakistan's relations with Washington will now shape up in
the "war on terror".
"He [Obama] opposed and objected to a policy that put all of our eggs in the
basket of a dictator - Pervez Musharraf - a policy supported by George Bush and
John McCain that really slow walked our support for the Democratic aspirations
of the Pakistani people," Rice said.
"Barack Obama's view has been and remains that it is in our interest - the best
long-term interest - that Pakistan becomes a stable, sustainable democracy."
Musharraf, who ruled with an iron fist after overthrowing former prime minister
Nawaz Sharif in October 1999, was forced to resign on August 18 following
threats of impeachment from the government. The low point of his rule was when
he attempted to use Pakistan's judiciary as a political tool by firing the
Rice said she hopes that under Zardari the US will see more concerted efforts
to combat terrorism and terrorists inside of Pakistan, including elements of
al-Qaeda and the Taliban.