/ 30 May 2009

Middle East hangs on Obama’s words

Elections in Lebanon and Iran; a long-promised Obama speech to the Arab world in Cairo; summits with Saudi Arabia and Egypt and a growing rift between the US and Israel. The Middle East is heading into one of those watershed periods that could define the region for years to come.

The countdown begins on Wednesday when Barack Obama travels to Riyadh and then on to Cairo for a major speech to try to bridge the divide between Islam and the west. His officials are giving little away about content but seem definite on one point. The president will not use his Cairo platform to spell out the details of his revamped, amalgamated plan for an Arab-Israeli settlement, though he may touch on Palestine. Instead a more broadbrush approach is expected.

”This is a very important moment for Obama and for the Middle East,” said Rosemary Hollis of the Chatham House thinktank. ”It’s important he speaks to Arabs to convince them he wants genuine change. If he wants to turn things around for America, he’s got to get on the front foot and show them that he represents a new, clued-up, plugged in administration.”

The location is significant because of Cairo’s position at, in the words of White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs, ”the heart of the Arab world”.

”This signals that the speech to Muslims is gradually morphing into a speech to Arabs. Improving relations with Muslims is important. But when it comes to US strategic interests, the more urgent item on the agenda is creating a strong coalition with Arab countries,” said Frida Ghitis in World Politics Review.

”The Obama administration has chosen Egypt because Cairo has taken a strong position on the two major crises brewing in the region: the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and the conflict with Iran.”

Obama’s words will be closely monitored, for substance as well as style, in Lebanon and Iran — where the resulting conclusions may impact significantly on upcoming elections. Three days later, Lebanese voters will choose between a pro-Western coalition headed by Saad Hariri, son of the murdered prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and an opposition bloc that includes Hezbollah.

So serious is Western concern at the prospect of Iranian-backed Hezbollah, proscribed by the US and Israel as a terrorist organisation, taking power that Obama sent his vice-president, Joe Biden, to Beirut last week to bolster Washington-friendly parties.

Officially, Biden was there ”to reinforce US support for an independent and sovereign Lebanon”. But he made clear that future US aid, totalling more than $1-billion since the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, will be contingent on the orientation of the new government.

With the outcome of the polls currently seen as too close to call, a powerful presidential speech in Cairo that convinces Arabs of a fundamental rectification of American and western policy could help tip the Lebanese scales. If on the other hand, platitudes trump deeds, Obama may unwittingly contribute to Lebanon’s feared drift back into Syrian and Iranian clutches.

”Should the opposition prevail, the impact on Lebanese and regional politics, as well as on Washington’s relations with Beirut, could be profound,” said David Schenker of the Washington Institute.

Similar considerations apply to the first round of Iran’s presidential polls on 12 June. Reformists have high hopes of unseating the conservative incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, viewed in Washington as an obstacle to a US-Iranian rapprochement and in Tel Aviv as the symbol of an existential threat.

But the argument for change in Tehran depends to a significant extent on trusting Obama and his promises to rehabilitate Iran and respect its rights and aspirations. To win over often apathetic Iranian voters to the reform banner, Obama must be seen as the genuine article. Conservative mullahs and their military and Revolutionary Guard allies, who back Ahmadinejad and revile the ”Great Satan”, would like nothing more than to see Obama fall flat in Cairo.

Some analysts worry Obama may have already left it too late. ”In his greeting to ‘the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran’ on the Persian New Year in March, Obama included language meant to assuage Iranian scepticism about America’s willingness to end efforts to topple the regime and pursue comprehensive diplomacy,” said the American Iran watchers, Flynt and Hillary Leverett, in the International Herald Tribune.

”Unfortunately Obama is backing away from the bold steps required to achieve strategic, Nixon-to-China-type rapprochement with Tehran.” What Obama had yet to demonstrate, they said, was the necessary ”strategic vision, political ruthlessness and personal determination” to achieve a breakthrough.

That criticism may fairly be applied to his approach so far to the Middle East’s central issue, the Arab-Israeli conflict. Obama’s summit talks in Riyadh and Cairo with King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and President Hosni Mubarak will include Iran, its elections and concern over its nuclear programme. But the main focus will be attempts to revive Arab-Israeli peace talks along the lines of the 2002 Saudi initiative, as developed recently by Jordan’s King Abdullah and embellished by Obama himself.

Yet lurking in the background, like a spectre at the feast, is Israel’s hawkish prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. As matters stand now, the Likud leader has the power, and possibly the inclination, to fatally undermine Obama’s Middle East foray and squander the chances of change that may present themselves in coming weeks. Crudely put, for Netanyahu, Iran matters; Palestine doesn’t.

Israel’s prime minister is sharply at odds with the White House on several key issues, chief among them settlements. The Obama administration has made clear in recent days that ”natural growth” of established settlements could not go on. As Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, said, Obama ”wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions,” she said. ”Settlement expansion [should] cease … We intend to press that point.”

Netanyahu has also refused to give ground on Jerusalem; has yet to endorse the US-backed road-map concept of a two-state solution; insists the Palestinian leadership must first accept his definition of Israel as a Jewish state; and has refused to contemplate returning the Golan Heights to Syria, another crucial part of the Arab-Israeli peace jigsaw.The only issue that Netanyahu and Obama appear to have agreed on is the threat posed by Iran, and on this, the US leader was outmanoeuvred. Netanyahu succeeded in pushing Obama to set a rough year’s-end deadline on talks with Tehran, after which sterner measures may be enacted.

”Netanyahu won the first round over Obama. That’s not good for American interests or for Israel’s long-term security,” said New York Times columnist Roger Cohen. ”If Obama allows the Israeli agenda on Iran to become America’s, his outreach is dead… Netanyahu’s bellicosity [towards Iran] is as unrelenting as his desire to distract attention from stillborn Palestine.”

Obama is aware of the danger. He said recently that an Arab-Israeli peace would facilitate, and therefore should ideally precede, a resolution of the Iranian question, rather than the other way around, as Netanyahu would have it. But the next few days may tell whether his much-talked-about ”outreach” to the Arabs, to Persians, and to the Muslim world in general has any real substance to it.

The election of a president whose middle name is Hussein has engendered hope and initial goodwill across the Middle East. But scepticism that he can deliver real post-Bush change is already taking hold. The vaunted ”window of opportunity” could be closing before it has fully opened.

Like Walter Mondale in 1984, Iran’s mullahs will be the first to cry ”Where’s the beef?” if Obama serves up a dish of wishful thinking, sops, symbolic gestures, and well-meant platitudes in Cairo. In doing so they will hope to persuade Iranians to turn their backs. And that, perversely, may serve Netanyahu very well. – guardian.co.uk