Obama steps into diplomatic minefield
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Ahead of two critical elections, in Lebanon and Iran, United States President
Barack Obama's visit to the Middle East next week is a delicate matter that may
even prove to be a litmus test of his foreign policy orientation.
The trip is unlikely to have any major impact on the parliamentary elections in
Lebanon on June 7 or the Iranian presidential elections on June 12.
Nonetheless, the visit to the region's two leading Sunni Arab powerhouses -
Egypt and Saudi Arabia - may be interpreted as a sign of foreign policy
continuity with the past. That is, a return to former president George W Bush's
Cold War-style politics that encouraged an alliance of Arab moderates versus
According to former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who
advises the Obama administration, the US should pursue the objective of
"strategic balance" in the region. Assuming that the pro-Iran Hezbollah will
dominate the Lebanese elections, then according to this "neo-realist"
perspective, this will add to the present regional imbalance favoring the
Iran-Syria bloc, backed by Hamas and a number of other Palestinian
From the point of view of Egypt, which considers itself a strategic
counterweight to Iran, Obama's highly-anticipated visit is bound to shore up
Cairo's role and influence in inter-regional affairs, particularly as Cairo has
been upping the ante against Hezbollah recently.
For Saudi Arabia on the other hand, its late addition to Obama's travel
itinerary is a welcome sign it is not isolated from the current inter-Arab
jockeying for leadership, which is mainly between Cairo and Riyadh.
But, the big question is: what exactly does Obama wish to gain from his trip to
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, as part of an overseas tour that includes France and
Germany? According to a White House spokesman, the president's intention is to
discuss the Iran nuclear issue and to generate support for Israeli-Palestinian
On both these subjects, after four months in office, Obama has little tangible
progress to show and it is doubtful that this trip will make any significant
dent. In fact, should it appear that Obama is overstating his case in either
department, then his entire journey could backfire and cause unwanted
backlashes in Israel and Iran, considerably deflating the new US
administration's enthusiasm for foreign policy change.
With the US and Israel out of step on the idea of a two-state solution and on
Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the chances are that if the White House
misplays its card, then the gap between the US and Israel may grow even bigger.
Or, vice versa, it might narrow, at the cost of Obama's favorable image in the
Muslim Middle East.
On Thursday, after a meeting in Washington with Palestinian President Mahmoud
Abbas, Obama expressed optimism that Israel would realize that a two-state
solution with Palestine is in its best interests.
Obama said the best way to guarantee Israeli security was to "set the stage for
a Palestinian state", a process he said should include Israel stopping the
construction of settlements and Palestinians following through with security
steps in the West Bank.
The Obama administration's quest to revive the Arab peace plan hinges first and
foremost on convincing Israel to come on board, something that Obama failed to
do during the recent Washington visit by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu. As a result, Obama's trip has the potential to be perceived as an
effort in coalition-building to bring Israel into line.
Given Israel's insistence on linking the Iran nuclear issue with the stalled
peace process, Obama needs to make some headway in building up regional
pressure on Iran. Yet it will be difficult to do so short of replicating Bush's
"new cold war" rhetoric and "divide and conquer" approach - a stable feature of
US policy in the Middle East since the end of World War II, albeit with
Obama's focus on the Iran nuclear threat, if overdone, will likely create the
impression that his administration is equally prepared as its predecessors to
use Iran-fearmongering to maintain US power over the oil regions of the Persian
This may explain the timing of a recent statement by Admiral Michael Mullen,
the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, claming that Iran is "one to three
years" away from acquiring nuclear bombs, a possibility that Mullen in
apocalyptic language described as "calamitous".
Mullen's statement coincided with the release of a new report by the East West
Institute  on Iran's missile threat, which predicted that an Iranian nuclear
capability - and especially the warhead delivery capability - is far more
distant. This undermines alarmist predictions by top US officials.
Many observers feel the Obama administration took the wrong approach to both
Lebanon and Iran by dispatching Vice President Joseph Biden to Beirut last
week. Biden did all he could to undermine Hezbollah's chances by, above all,
warning that future US assistance depended on the election's outcome. This was
another reminder that this White House, like its predecessor, has a qualified
understanding of democracy: it's good as long as it does not bring the wrong
candidates to power.
This is a questionable way of promoting democracy in the Middle East,
particularly since no one in the Obama administration seems bothered by the
highly restrictive elections in Egypt or the absence of any elections in Saudi
Arabia. Riyadh has been rattled by neighboring Iraq's experiment with democracy
- one reason why Saudi-Iraqi relations remain poor.
Once in Saudi Arabia, Obama would be wise to press the kingdom's leadership
hard on the issue of full diplomatic relations with Shi'ite-led Iraq, instead
of seeking a Sunni-led alliance against Iran, which is Iraq's key trade
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states are experiencing
the pains of the global recession and are more eager than ever to halt any
regional arms race. The US, intent on collecting the rewards of hefty,
multi-billion dollar arms sales to GCC states, may seek to fuel a Persian Gulf
arms race through anti-Iran propaganda.
If so, Obama may soon be perceived as yet another shrewd salesman of US
hegemony, the personification of the US's current bid at "smart power". This
could backfire with respect to Obama's nascent Iran policy, which is under fire
from both the right, center and left in the US. A recent opinion piece in
Sunday's New York Times by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Man Leverett accused
Obama of not living up to his campaign promise to make a serious overture
Coinciding with such left-of-center criticisms of Obama's Iran policy, was the
revelation by Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a Sunday interview with NBC
television that Obama had requested an updated plan for a military strike on
Iran, adding that "we have refreshed our plan".
This translates into a new US determination to back its Iran diplomacy with a
"military threat", to paraphrase Washington columnist David Ignatius. Contrary
to Ignatius, the present efforts to bolster diplomacy with the stick of
military threats only torpedoes the chances for a diplomatic breakthrough with
Iran, a country that traditionally does not respond well to external threats.
The US pundits who point to Iran's cooperation with the US on Afghanistan after
the 9/11 attacks, fail to see the primary underlying reason for Iran's
cooperation: the fact that it was largely born by shared interests vis-a-vis
the dreaded Taliban and less as a result of fear that "Uncle Sam is coming".
As Obama prepares to traverse the length of the Persian Gulf, he may want to
reflect on the current trends in Washington aiming to perpetuate US hegemony in
the name of "containing Iran". Such ambitions may lead to static foreign policy
that constantly demonizes Iran, a country with which the US in the post 9/11
milieu has much in common.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.