Two ‘Resolutions’ for Obama in 2010

Two ‘Resolutions’ for Obama in 2010

Obama’s initiatives in Iran and in the Afghan-Pakistan theatre of war — together with the Arab-Israeli conflict — are at the heart of the world crisis. How he chooses to tackle them will have a profound impact on the United States and on the states of the Middle East, friend and foe alike, saysPatrick Seale.


President Barack Obama is in danger of continuing two serious foreign policy blunders, which threaten to haunt him for the rest of his presidency, distracting him from his proclaimed goal of building bridges to the Arab and Muslim world.

These mistakes are avoidable, but time is short and he must act now if he is not to be trapped by domestic hawks, as well as by the inexorable pressure of events he has already set in train.

As readers will no doubt have guessed, I refer to Obama’s initiatives in Iran and in the Afghan-Pakistan theatre of war. These two regions — together with the Arab-Israeli conflict — are at the heart of the world crisis. How he chooses to tackle them will have a profound impact on the United States and on the states of the Middle East, friend and foe alike.

At the start of his presidency a year ago, Obama reached out a hand of friendship to Tehran, with the noble ambition of bringing to a close thirty years of sterile hostility with the Islamic Republic of Iran. His gesture has so far yielded some small positive results, such as meetings between senior Iranian representatives and the 5+1 group (U.S. China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.) Proposals have been made on the nuclear issue, which evidently need further negotiation.

Having for years been subjected to US talk of “regime change,” Iran is understandably suspicious of American motives. In addition, Iran’s leaders – the populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — are being challenged by a domestic protest movement of unprecedented dimensions. Having gathered strength largely unnoticed below the surface, a volcanic rebellion of disaffected youth has burst into the open, triggered by last June’s flawed elections. This protest movement has by no means been quashed. The struggle for the future nature of the Islamic Republic continues unabated, fanning the leaders’ already paranoid fears.

In these fraught circumstances, it is not easy for Iran to consider a politically risky deal with the United States — unless it is certain of substantial rewards in return.

But instead of persisting with engagement, as it should have done, Washington has reverted to talk of ‘crippling’ sanctions. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation, sponsored by Howard Berman, a Democrat of pro-Israeli sympathies, to impose sanctions on foreign companies that help supply gasoline to Iran. If the Senate approves the bill, the White House will be hard put not to follow suit.

Israel, meanwhile, has redoubled its efforts to mobilise international opinion against Iran. To quote a single example, in a column in a leading Arabic newspaper this month, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon wrote:

“The enemy of the people of Lebanon is not Israel, but Hizbullah. The enemy of the Palestinian people is not Israel, but Hamas. The enemy of the Egyptian people is not Israel, but militant Islamic groups. All these groups… receive their commands from Iran… Iran seeks to hold an entire region to ransom… If Iran is able to attain nuclear weapons, the situation becomes inexplicably and inexorably worse… Only together can we face this threat and remove it.”

This propaganda may not convince many Arabs, but it provides a pointer to Israeli thinking. Why is Israel so concerned about the “Iranian threat”? The answer is that the possession of a bomb by Iran — or even its mere progress towards nuclear capability — would limit Israel’s freedom of action. It could no longer strike its neighbours at will, without risking the consequences. The military hegemony over the region, which Israel has enjoyed for the past half century, would be eroded — something Israel is determined to avoid.

Most independent observers — myself among them — would argue that Iran will not willingly give up its right to enrich uranium; that sanctions are unlikely to force it to do so, not least because China and Russia will not participate; and that military action against Iran would be foolhardy in the extreme, condemning its perpetrators to indefinite hostility and retaliation. Even with American support — which Obama has explicitly ruled out — Israel would be very rash indeed to attempt it.

Nevertheless, Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak never fails to mention that, regarding Iran, “all options remain on the table” – a scarcely veiled threat of a military strike.

The immediate goal of Obama’s diplomacy should be to persuade Iran to halt its military nuclear programme — if it indeed it has one — at the “threshold stage,” that is to say, to refrain from producing or testing a nuclear weapon. Iran will, no doubt, wish to retain the ability to do so at short notice — all the more so, if it continues to be threatened.

But even this limited objective will require the United States to engage with Iran, and not to squeeze it with sanctions or threaten it with military strikes. What does engagement mean? It means being ready to discuss with Iran, on the basis of mutual respect, a wide range of issues beyond the nuclear one, including Iran’s legitimate regional role and its need for guarantees against subversion or attack. Above all, a sincere effort must be made to integrate Iran into the regional security architecture of the Middle East.

Obama must choose whether he wants to stabilise the Middle East, and thereby restore America’s much tarnished authority, or contribute to the present dangerous drift to war.

Obama’s second blunder is the strong pressure he is putting on Pakistan to attack Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – and particularly to smash the Jalaluddin Haqqani guerrillas in North Waziristan who have been attacking NATO forces across the border in eastern Afghanistan.

The seven FATA tribal agencies which hug the Afghan frontier are dominated by ethnic Pashtuns and have traditionally — from the time of the British Raj to the present — enjoyed self-rule by local shaikhs. To seek to subdue them by force is to ask for trouble.

The war against the Taliban — together with America’s lethal drone attacks — are destabilising the fragile Pakistani state. They also risk provoking a rebellion against American policy by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, who count on local Taliban groups to keep Indian influence in Afghanistan in check.

Instead of chasing an illusory military victory in Afghanistan, Obama should urgently seek a political settlement. At bottom, this means negotiating with the Taliban, and with the Pashtun tribes who provide their foot soldiers. Rather than pressing Pakistan to make war on the Taliban, the United States should encourage Pakistan to reach out to them on its side of the border. Why? Because only Pakistan can deliver the Taliban to the negotiating table.

It may be too late for Obama to change course in both Iran and the AfPak theatre. The pressures on him from domestic hawks and from allies like Israel may simply be too great. But heading down the slippery slope to still more war can only mean a gross waste of scarce resources, a dangerous military overstretch, oceans of blood and tears, and the extinction of all hope of better relations with the world of Islam.

Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.