Obama’s approach to Middle Eastern Issues – January 15, 2013

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Barack Obama has not had much time to bask in his victory over Mitt Romney. The so called fiscal cliff which was partially averted at the last moment must have given him sleepless nights. Once the celebrations surrounding his second term have subsided in Washington, an array of unresolved global issues will be confronting him in 2013. This report will focus on Israel-Palestine and Iran matters. Israeli politics under its hawkish Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has lurched to the right. Netanyahu is virtually assured of reelection in the general elections later on in January. His policy has been to continue back pedaling on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process while paying lip service to it. Rather, he has been snapping at Obama’s heels to initiate a military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. He has also stated that 2013 will be “the year we confront Iran.” Relations between Obama and Netanyahu are cool at best. The latter openly supported Romney against Obama because Romney promised unalloyed support to Israel, as opposed to the more nuanced approach of Obama. The perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict has defied a solution for more than six decades. The so called two state solution is practically on life support with more than half a million Israeli settlers colonizing the occupied West Bank. More and more observers are coming around to the view that Israel will continue to absorb portions of the West Bank into Israel, thereby nullifying the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state. A corollary to this viewpoint advanced by some experts is that the US is not really uncomfortable with this prospect, and is unlikely to punish Israel for pursuing this self- destructive approach. The disunity between the Palestinian Authority and the militant Hamas- led government in Gaza, constitutes a further impediment to a final resolution of the issue, as the Palestinian leadership is unable to speak with a single voice. Is Iran moving toward weapons-grade uranium enrichment capability? Given the secrecy which surrounds Iran’s nuclear activities (and also Israel’s for that matter) that is a difficult question to answer with a comfortable degree of precision. The United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the nuclear watchdog which oversees implementation by states of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, during its inspections of Iranian nuclear sites has not so far found a “smoking gun”. However the IAEA inspectors are still negotiating with Iran to be permitted to visit an Iranian facility at Fordow, before the IAEA can give a better assessment of Iranian intentions. Edward Luce a prominent analyst at the Financial Times has recently suggested that: “Those who know Mr. Obama best find it hard to imagine that in practice he would exercise the military option to which he has implicitly committed himself. If a US attack on Iran went wrong or events went out of control, it would wreck everything else on his agenda including US economic recovery.” Obama’s nominations of John Kerry as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary (both of them considered as dovish on foreign policy issues) do suggest that probably Obama will pursue negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program, either bilaterally or in larger forums. Furthermore, the Iranian economy has been seriously impacted by the stringent economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the US and the EU. The spectacular fall of the Iranian rial and the privations currently being suffered by ordinary Iranians, may have persuaded Tehran to show willingness to reopen diplomatic talks with the west, which were suspended some months earlier. Barring the views of a part of the US establishment calling for a military strike against Iran-sometimes referred to as “chicken hawks” – it would seem that a negotiated solution to the nuclear impasse appears to be the preferred option for all sides: Tehran, Washington, Israel and Iran’s neighbors. Admittedly, the path of negotiations could be both complex and tortuous, but the alternative of a preemptive military attack by Israel itself, or in combination with the US, will likely invite retaliation from Iran, militarily the most powerful country in the Middle East after Israel. The consequences could be seriously destabilizing at the global level. Edward Luce has correctly surmised that “knowledge cannot be bombed.” If the latter option is exercised, it is a near certainty that the Iranian resolve to achieve nuclear weapon status will be strengthened further.

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