Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Obama’s lack of interest opens the door for Iran

Recently, in response to questions about the Obama administration’s disengagement from the Middle East, a former American official visiting Beirut offered his interpretation. Though he was not necessarily advocating Washington’s actions, what he presented revealed the incomprehensibility of the American strategy towards Iran and the Arab world, Syria in particular.

Explaining why the United States had not exploited the opportunity to severely weaken Iran in the Levant by helping to push President Bashar Al Assad out of office in 2011 and 2012, the former official presented what, by now, has become a familiar refrain: the administration, facing a major economic crisis, did not have the latitude or desire to act in Syria.

Moreover, in this regard the American public was unwilling to approve of any intervention in the Arab world, even if there were many more options than deploying ground troops.

When asked about whether the US viewed Iran as a strategic rival in the Middle East, the official said it did. In other words, there is clear recognition in Washington of the power stakes in the region and no effort to minimise this.

When the former official was queried about whether a nuclear deal with Iran might open the door to a broader American dialogue with the Islamic Republic over regional issues, the answer was “probably not”. With American midterm elections looming and suspicion of Iran high in Congress, anything seen as ignoring the Iranian danger could hurt President Barack Obama.

There was nothing here that hadn’t been said before. And yet, putting the implications together, what was the message? That the Obama administration does view Iran as a major foe in the Middle East, but that it preferred to do nothing about it in Syria (though it was willing to make an effort in Libya). That while Mr Obama today considers terrorism emanating from Syria as a major threat to America, he failed to fill the dangerous vacuum in the country when he was specifically warned that it might lead to the emergence of jihadist groups.

The former official had a point in saying that once engaged in Syria, the US could not simply hand the problem off to someone else once its goals were achieved, namely Mr Al Assad’s removal. The complexity of the Syrian situation meant that some sort of medium-term commitment was necessary.

Perhaps, but the impression was that the Obama administration is mostly unwilling to make any effort in the region, even if this has negative strategic implications. There is a great disconnect between the perceived importance of the regional challenge posed by Iran and America’s willingness to respond to it.

It has often been said that the Iranians play chess while the Americans play checkers. But these days, the Obama administration seems hardly to be playing at all. Even though it is in dire financial straits, Iran has gone all the way on behalf of Mr Al Assad. The Obama administration, though assisting the Syrian opposition would have cost much less, refused to do so.

Syria may be more vital to Iran than it is to America, but that again raises the initial question: What is the Obama administration’s assessment of Iranian power in the region? If Iran has to be contained – and negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme suggests it does – then can this be done if the US is so reluctant to take on any regional respons­ibility?

The lack of commitment on the part of Mr Obama – indeed, what appears to be his utter lack of interest – will have profound implications for the Middle East in the foreseeable future and perhaps beyond. America’s allies are already preparing for a post-American period in the region, with some even wondering whether it is not time to arrive at some sort of understanding with Iran.

As long as the Saudis and other Gulf countries view Iranian influence as an existential threat, such a process may be limited. But even Saudi Arabia seems to have accepted the implications of American abandonment – and that word is not too strong. The recent Saudi invitation to Iran’s foreign minister to visit the kingdom may be the first step in an effort to peacefully coexist with the Islamic Republic in light of this.

In Lebanon, similar dynamics may also take shape. In lieu of open-ended confrontation, the Sunni community, following the Saudi lead if the kingdom warms up to Iran, may see a similar benefit in improving relations with Hizbollah. The formation of a national-unity government earlier this year, apparently sanctioned by the Saudis and Iranians, showed the relative advantages of a process of sectarian normalisation.

But one should not be naive. There is nothing heartfelt in adapting to a new reality of power in the region. Quite simply, America’s allies in the region believe that the Obama administration has no will to pursue its obvious interests, and therefore they are going their own way. And when they hear Washington’s weak rationale for its minimalism, this only confirms to them that the US is not likely to soon change.

Is that what Mr Obama wants? Does he feel that America has entered a new phase in the region and that there is no going back to the past? American officials may not admit as much, but the Arab states have already made up their mind. Iran is making headway and no one can rely on America to prevent this.

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