November 9, 2008

Obama's Election - Mixed Reviews in the Region

The election of Barack Obama as the next president of the United States has sparked some interesting reactions in the Middle East - mostly predictable, but with some surprises.

The leaders of Iran and Syria - both state sponsors of terrorism - sent congratulatory messages to the president-elect, assuming that he will be more amenable to direct discussions with their regimes. Iranian leaders are especially encouraged by Obama's repeated campaign promise to meet with them without preconditions.

In a earlier interview with the New York Times, Obama made clear that “changes in [Iranian] behavior” would be rewarded with economic benefits and security guarantees. “We are willing to talk about certain assurances in the context of them showing some good faith,” he said in the interview at his campaign headquarters here. “I think it is important for us to send a signal that we are not hell-bent on regime change, just for the sake of regime change, but expect changes in behavior. And there are both carrots and there are sticks available to them for those changes in behavior.”

With these words on the record, Obama's victory was welcomed in Tehran, as well as Damascus - no surprise since Syria has become nothing more than a client state of Iran. Iranian President Ahmadinejad would prefer to deal with someone who has committed to talk to him without the Iranian leader making any concessions whatsoever. I suspect that Ahmadinejad's national security advisors have provided him with an analysis that the new American president will be somewhat naive and easier to manipulate that either the Bush administration or John McCain. To Ahmadinejad, an Obama win presents him with the opportunity to reset the nuclear enrichment issue - no doubt he will want to start at square one and thus gain more time for his scientists to move closer to their likely goal of producing fissile material - the precursor to a nuclear weapon.

Syria likewise is happy with an Obama victory. Despite his rhetoric at selected American Jewish gatherings, Obama appears much more disposed to the Palestinian and Arab positions in the Middle East peace process than either George Bush or John McCain. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad hopes that a softer line from Washington will allow him to drive a harder bargain in his dealings with the Israelis. He may even believe he will able to regain the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights without having to close the Syrian gate for Iranian support of Hizballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Virtually all Iranian support for these terrorist groups is funneled through Syria's airspace and border crossings into Lebanon.

Surprisingly, many senior officials of the Iraqi government are pleased that Obama won the election. The Shi'a leaders, including Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, are sympathetic (to put it mildly) with Iran and agree that their long term interests are best served with a quick and complete American troop withdrawal from Iraq - as Obama has committed to do. Other leaders are not as happy. The Sunnis believe that a quick withdrawal of American forces leaves them vulnerable to a resurgence of sectarian violence, and do not trust the Shi'a leaders close relationship with Iran. The Kurds are not so pleased with the Obama victory - they have stated that if American forces are not permitted to remain past a date certain specified in a status of forces agreement, they will offer bases in the Kurdish autonomous area. Of course, Prime Minister al-Maliki has just proposed to further limit what the autonomous regions can do, specifically aimed at just such an offer.

As far as the other Arab states, they are wary of the rise in Iranian power, Iran's apparent disregard for concerns of the international community over its nuclear program and what they believe is a new American willingness to give concessions to the regime in Tehran. If they believe a President Obama allows Iran to continue its uranium enrichment efforts unchecked, they too will find it necessary to develop their own similar capabilities. The failure of American foreign policy on this issue could ignite an arms race in the region, particularly the Persian Gulf. If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and possibly Turkey will be hard pressed not to follow suit.

The need to contain Iran will be Obama's first national security challenge. A precipitous withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, failure to provide strong leadership on the nuclear issue and the perception that we will no longer stand firm with out Gulf Arab allies may just be that test future vice president Joe Biden meant in his recent warning.