Evidently, disagreement over President Barack Obama's foreign policy has almost become limited to a particular segment of the American popular base, mostly driven by partisan motives, while the majority of Americans seem to have grown weary of getting involved in foreign wars and explicitly wants an isolationist America. Yet, what if such a policy of seclusion and evasion were to lead the United States to be dragged into wars it does not want or to balances of power that take shape at its expense? That is the question that dwells in the minds of those who disapprove of the Obama administration giving up leadership in regional issues, such as those of Iran, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. They are of the opinion that "no-policy" is not a policy, and that refraining from playing a leadership role for electoral considerations will have a backlash for the United States, and that this same majority now calling for isolationism will be the one to pay the price.
Another opinion considers that Obama's policy shows domestic political skill, through its careful analysis of the mood of the American people, as well as international political skill, by adopting sanctions as a means to force the likes of Iran and Syria to submit to change and to meet demands. Those who are of the latter opinion see wisdom in the Obama administration conceding leadership and responsibility on the issues of the Middle East, from Iran to Syria, and Egypt and Yemen. They say that the method of postponing decision-making until a later time, in the sense of "not now," is a logical one for a man whose priority is to remain in the White House. Indeed, the Republicans are fumbling, and their presumed candidate is detached from ordinary people, while President Obama is much closer to people, regardless of the anger, resentment and disappointment they might feel toward him, as those who defend Barack Obama say. The danger of relying on the "no-policy" policy from now until the month of November does not lie only in its regional repercussions in the Middle East, but also in what the United States might inherit in terms of being dragged into military involvement, particularly in Iran, and in terms of the eruption of a country of the importance and the size of Egypt. The matter therefore deserves proper discussion, rather than the farce of the political game being promoted by the American media at the expense of the country's interests.
The sanctions approach is not a useless one, as in fact the capabilities of the regime of the mullahs in Tehran for regional subversion have been reduced to a certain extent, and there are those who believe that their capabilities for nuclear development have been reduced as well. Yet sanctions as a means have not undermined the domestic tyranny of the mullahs in its systematic repression of the opposition, nor did they represent an obstacle to crushing the Green Revolution in 2009 under the sight of the whole world. Similarly, sanctions have failed to rein in the appetite of the regime in Tehran for expanding beyond Iran's borders, notably in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, reaching the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
President Obama has clung to the method of enticement before threats, making use of it mainly in an abundance of carrots, as opposed to the one stick not ready for use. Buying time -- in the opinion of some -- has come to the benefit of the Obama administration, which has set out to achieve the goals of withdrawing from centers of tension and from the sites of potential wars. Yet according to a different opinion, buying time has been to the benefit of Iran strengthening its nuclear reactors and capabilities at length, because obtaining military nuclear capabilities would give Iran exceptional and superior regional status and would serve its objectives of imposing its hegemony.
The disagreement, internationally and regionally, is not just over the assessment of Iran's nuclear capabilities, but also its capabilities in terms of expansion as well as at the domestic level. Is the Islamic Republic of Iran stronger or weaker than it was before the sanctions? That is a question whose answer many disagree over, as Iran's well-known political skill and its ability to be patient and to persevere make this difficult to determine. Nevertheless, it is clear that the wave of Arab revolutions -- which Tehran spoke highly of when they erupted in Egypt, but then "choked on" when it reached Syria -- has weakened Tehran's mullahs and struck terror in their hearts as well. Indeed, at the end of the day, they are losing no matter what the Arab revolutions will bring about. Whether the result is democratic, or Arab armies seize power, or the contagion of the ability to break the circle of fear spreads to the Iranian people, the regime in Tehran structurally suffers from a lack of credibility and legitimacy at the domestic and regional levels, and not just at the international level.
The arms of Iran's ruling institution stretching into Arab lands have also been struck by weakness -- yet not complete paralysis. Iran's military arms are providing assistance to its ally, the regime in Damascus, in order to crush the Syrian opposition and stifle any attempt to overthrow the regime. That is a vital matter for the mullahs of Tehran, one which has grown more intense and in which their trust has increased as a result of the stances taken by Russia in support of the regimes in Damascus and Tehran. Tehran considers keeping Bashar Al-Assad president and keeping his regime in power to represent a prize, as well as a blessing for its policy based on the intrinsic connection between the Islamic republic and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Furthermore, Tehran considers thwarting the overthrow, or even change, of the regime in Damascus to represent victory for the Islamic Republic of Iran and defeat for the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). This is why the Syrian issue is of the utmost importance for the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The importance of the Syrian card for Tehran extends to international equations, most prominently that of Russia and the joint Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States Kofi Annan. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Kofi Annan for the rulers of Tehran do not just represent a life preserver for the regime in Damascus, but also allow the Iranian regime to move forward with bullet-proof protection against pressures and accountability, both regionally and internationally.
One of the numerous common denominators shared by the Lavrov-Annan duo is that they both today seek to eliminate "militarization" from the Syrian crisis, in order to pull the rug from under the feet of the Arab countries that consider arming the opposition to have become a "duty," as Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal said at the Friends of Syria meeting held in Istanbul last week. Sergey Lavrov, with his well-known political skill, seemed as if he were amending Russia's policies when he agreed to the six-point plan of his seasoned friend Kofi Annan -- starting with Syrian army troops withdrawing from the streets and returning to their barracks, while his previous stance had been for the Syrian army and opposition forces to withdraw simultaneously. On the next day, Lavrov added to his threats that "even if they arm the Syrian opposition to the teeth, it won't be able to defeat the Syrian army." This was the day the number of people killed in Syria reached 10,000.
Kofi Annan, for his part, continued to navigate using the Russian compass, reassured to having repaired the relationship between the United States and Russia and having brought together the stances of the Barack Obama administration and Vladimir Putin's government, and headed to Tehran despite the complaints voiced by Arab countries that Annan is "legitimizing" Iran's role in Syria -- this after Annan snubbed the Arab Summit as well as contact with the Syrian opposition. Indeed, there is in the air the smell of resentment, and perhaps a crisis.
Restoring Iran's role in Syria through an envoy of the U.N. and the Arab League represents a blow to the Arab countries that oppose such a role. Such an interpretation of the stance taken by Kofi Annan has found its way to Washington, which seeks to "shelter" itself and to avoid any challenges. Washington wants to bury its head in any available sand as long as this spares it from having to do something, anything. Indeed, it is in the mood for a "no-policy" policy, the strategy of doing nothing, and the tactic of tossing hot potatoes to others. Obama's Washington wants to remain in the White House, and it has decided that the best policy is for it to ignore matters and to pretend that it is working within the framework of the "consensus" with which Kofi Annan has blessed the Security Council.
The Obama administration wants first and foremost to avoid confrontation, at least for now, and it has not deeply considered the meaning and the perspectives of giving the upper hand to the two regimes of Tehran and Damascus, at the expense of its Arab allies, just as it has not closely examined what Israel's stances on the nuclear issue might bring it, given that it could implicate the United States militarily in Iran. The Obama administration is positioning itself in the phase after "containment," which it had adopted as a basis for its policy toward Iran, then abandoned it in order to please Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu within the framework of buying time. It is still in the process of enticing Iran and overwhelming it with carrot temptations, from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq, and up to the quality of U.S.-Gulf relations. Yet the Obama administration might find itself falling into the trap of military involvement.
One opinion, expressed by a former official of several U.S. administrations, states that the United States could be dragged into a military strike against Iran as a result of Obama's policy of pleasing Israel and rewarding it for not directing a military strike of its own against Iran now. In other words, Obama's artful handling of the means to avoid war may well lead him to get this very war he has been trying to avoid. What this official calls the "time lapse of immunity" resulting from Israel itself not directing a military strike against Iran in the next six months will lead to undermining Israel's military capability to carry out the task. The United States alone possesses the military capability necessary for breaching this immunity of Iranian nuclear facilities, and it -- not Israel -- will be the one forced and dragged into carrying out the military task, perhaps next year if Obama decides that the policy of enticement has failed and that he is left with only the choice of fulfilling his promises to Israel, to reward it for its "patience" and meeting its "not-now" demands.
Tehran believes that President Barack Obama will not make use of the military card. It also believes that he will not be able and will not be allowed to reach a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and thus that the Islamic Republic will be able to restore its Palestinian card, and to hold some of the fate of the West's relationship with Israel through Hezbollah's loyalty to it in Lebanon -- just as it also believes that Russia's stances represent a valuable card for it with Washington, and that Kofi Annan will succeed at saving the Syrian leadership, no matter how much GCC countries mobilize their capabilities in support of the Syrian opposition.
The common denominator among the Obama administration, Putin's government and Kofi Annan on the issues of Syria and Iran will not necessarily spell victory for the Iranian and Syrian leaderships. Rather, it represents one transitional phase among many in times of change and transformation in the Middle East, where fate is no longer designed and manufactured on policy-drawing tables as had been the custom in the past.