Al-Ahram Weekly Online   18 - 24 June 2009
Issue No. 952
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Obama's Iran puzzle

Ahmadinejad's apparent re-election in Iran puts the US administration of Obama on a collision course with Israel, writes Ramzy Baroud*

The election victory of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is likely to complicate US President Barack Obama's new approach to his country's conflict with Iran. The obstacle is neither the US nor Iran's refusal to engage in future dialogue, but rather Israel's insistence on a hardline approach to Iran.

Iran's presidential elections on 12 June were poised to represent another fight between Middle Eastern "moderates" and "extremists". That depiction, which conveniently divided the Middle East -- according to prevailing US foreign policy discourse -- into pro-US and anti-US camps, was hardly as clear in the Iranian case as it was in Palestine and most recently in Lebanon.

Ahmadinejad's main rival, Mir-Hussein Mousavi served as Iran's prime minister for eight years (between 1981-1989) during one of Iran's most challenging times, its war with Iraq. He was hardly seen as a moderate then. More, Mousavi was equally adamant in his country's right to produce atomic energy for peaceful means.

As far as US interests in the region are concerned, both Ahmadinejad and Mousavi are interested in dialogue with the US and are unlikely to alter their country's attitudes towards the occupation of Iraq, their support of Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Neither is ready, willing or -- frankly -- capable of removing Iran from the regional power play at work in the Middle East, considering that Iranian policies are shaped by other internal forces besides the president of the country.

This is not to suggest that both leaders are one and the same. For the average Iranian, statements made by Ahmadinejad and Mousavi during Iran's lively election campaigns did indeed promise major changes in their lives, daily struggles and future. But yet again, the two men were caricatured to present two convenient personalities to the outside world: a raging nuclear-obsessed man, hell-bent on "wiping Israel off the map", and a soft-spoken, learned "moderate" ready to "engage" the West and redeem the sins of his predecessor.

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, the first negative image -- tainted as such by mainstream media, and years of image manipulation by forces dedicated to the interest of Israel -- won. The election outcome in Iran presents the young Obama with a major challenge: if he carries on with his diplomatic approach and soft overtures towards Iran, ruled by a supposed Holocaust-denier, he will certainly be seen as a failed president, who dared to perceive Israel's interests in the region as secondary; on the other hand, Obama cannot depart from his country's new approach towards Iran, a key player in shaping the contending forces in the entire region.

In some way, Ahmadinejad's victory was the best news for Israel. Now, Tel Aviv will continue to pressure Obama to "act" against Iran, for the latter, under its current president, is an "existential threat" to Israel -- a claim that few in Washington question. "It is not like we rooted for Ahmadinejad," an Israeli official told The New York Times on the condition of anonymity a day after it was clear that Ahmadinejad won another term in office.

But considering Israel's immediate attempt to capitalise on the outcome of the elections, one wonders if the defeat of Iran's "moderate" camp was not a best-case scenario for Israel. Iran will continue to be presented as an obstacle to future peace in the Middle East, allowing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to avoid accountability as far as the "peace process" is concerned. In fact, with an "existential threat" not too far away, few in Washington would dare challenge Israel's settlement policies in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, or its deadly siege on Gaza, or in fact its confrontational approach to Syria and Hizbullah in Lebanon, the latter seen as an "Iranian-backed militia".

Israeli Vice Premier Silvan Shalom was one of the first top officials in Israel to exploit the moment on 13 June. The results of Iran's elections, he said, "blew up in the faces of those who thought Iran was built for a genuine dialogue with the free world on stopping its nuclear programme." Ostensibly, Shalom's message was directed at a small audience in Tel Aviv, but his true target audience was in fact Obama himself.

Obama's overtures towards Iran were not necessarily an indication of a fundamental shift in US foreign policy, but a realistic recognition of Iran's growing influence in the region, and the US's desperate and failing fight in Iraq. It was Obama's pragmatism, not a moral shift in US foreign policy, that compelled such statements as that made 2 June in a BBC interview: "What I do believe is that Iran has legitimate energy concerns, legitimate aspirations. On the other hand, the international community has a very real interest in preventing a nuclear arms race in the region."

For Israel, however, Obama's rhetoric is a deviation from the past US hardline approach towards Iran. What Israel wants to keep alive is a discussion of war as a viable option to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions and to eliminate a major military rival in the Middle East.

Senior fellow at the pro-Israeli American Enterprise Institute, John R Bolton expressed the war- mongering mantra of the pro-Israel crowd in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled "What if Israel Strikes Iran?" He stated: "Many argue that Israeli military action will cause Iranians to rally in support of the mullahs' regime and plunge the region into political chaos. To the contrary, a strike accompanied by effective public diplomacy could well turn Iran's diverse population against an oppressive regime."

Ahmadinejad's victory will serve as further proof that diplomacy with Iran is not an option, from the point of view of Israel and its supporters in the US. Whether Obama will proceed with his positive rhetoric towards Iran remains to be seen. Failure to do so, however, will further undermine his country's interests in the Middle East, and will prolong the atmosphere of animosity, espoused by a clique of neoconservative hardliners throughout the years of the Bush administration.

* The writer is editor of PalestineChronicle.com.

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