01/06/2013 01:11 pm ET Updated Mar 08, 2013

Speculations at the Start of Obama's Second Term

It is not yet clear how President Barack Obama intends to direct U.S. foreign policy during his second term, especially as the discovery of massive reserves of oil in the United States provides the country with a strategic boost that will characterize its international relations and global influence. Some observers believe that Obama's second term will not differ radically from his first in terms of the president's "isolationist" tendencies, which will in fact be reinforced as a result of America heading towards self-sufficiency in terms of oil and the declining strategic importance of oil-producing countries. Others say that it would be wrong to assume that the United States is on the verge of withdrawing from the world -- so to speak -- and that new factors, including those relating to oil, as well as President Obama's personality in his second term, will engender a different kind of U.S. foreign policy, one that will redefine the notions of "intervention," "seclusion" and "isolationism." With the start of the countdown to the inauguration of Obama's second term, theories and assumptions abound, especially in the Middle East, which at times lays the blame for all of its woes on America and the "conspiracies" it concocts, while at others trembles in fear of losing U.S. attention and seeing it turn eastwards at its expense. As the year begins, the priority of the discussions in the region remains the regional order that will emerge this year and the next. Here, one question that is raised repeatedly is this: What does America want for us? Such a question is asked by the Arabs much more than by the Iranians or the Israelis, or even the Turks.

Indeed, the leaders of the regime in the Islamic Republic of Iran reject the notion of "what America wants for us" and replace it with "what Iranian strategy holds that would affect what America wants or does in the region." Those in power in Israel do not submit to what any US President wants, but in fact trust in their own ability to make such a President submit to what they want when the need arises. Those in power in Turkey somehow combine arrogance in dealing their Asian neighborhood and appeasement for their European -- and NATO -- neighborhood and commitments. Those in power in the Arab region, however, are a mixture that ranges from excessive arrogance to recognition of the weight and size carried by the United States. Most of them consider U.S. policy towards the actors in the Middle East to be in effect dictating the future of the region, its political orientations and the regional balance of power. Furthermore, the relationship between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran occupies the prime position in the Arab region's analysis of its own future - and this has returned to the forefront with the arrival of the Obama Administration's second term and its new players in the Departments of State and Defense on the 20th of this month, the date of Barack Obama's inauguration as President for the four years to come.

There has lately been talk -- to the tune of the speculations that have accompanied the start of the second term -- that what is being shaped behind the scenes is an American-Russian bargain, based on Tehran "suspending" the Iranian nuclear program in exchange for "unleashing" a major military operation by the regime in Damascus that would lay to waste any territory on which the armed Syrian opposition has a foothold. President Obama is not too keen to enter as party to the war in Syria -- which has become in the opinion of some Americans a war between the regime and the jihadists, both of whom are undesirable by Obama and the Americans in general. There is talk that Obama has returned to adopt the policy of attrition and of exhausting both sides of the war so as for one of them to destroy the other without the need for the United States to get directly implicated in any way. It is said that the change that occurred the moment the presidential elections ended, in terms of American engagement in settling the conflict by encouraging the supply of weapons to the armed opposition, has gone back and relapsed, out of fear of being held responsible for providing any assistance to jihadists in Syria. At times there is talk of Obama increasing his strategy of "from behind," not just to lead from behind but also to lie in wait from behind until further notice; and at others there appear signs of resolve to lead firmly and decisively.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is present in all calculations, in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, as well as in the relationship with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and with Russia. President Barack Obama wants neither a war nor to be forced to take military action in Iran to stop its nuclear program, and there are those in the United States who support -- and even outbid - him on the Iranian nuclear issue, saying that there is no danger in allowing the Islamic Republic of Iran to become a nuclear power -- and why not? Obama, on the other hand, has sworn a pledge that he would not allow Iran to become a nuclear power, and he must "deal with" this pledge, whether he has it in mind to fulfill it, to delay its going into effect or for it to disappear. This is where the Russian element comes in to "sponsor" a bargain between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran, based on convincing Tehran's rulers to "suspend" their nuclear program in exchange for preserving Iran's regional role, not just in Iraq, but also necessarily in and through Syria. What is being talked about is that the Russians are trying to convince Obama's people that all the U.S. president has to do is "look the other way" while the machinery of the regime in Damascus crushes the armed opposition under the pretext of uprooting jihadists, in what is referred to as "scorched earth policy." Such a policy would require regrouping the military in order to wage a major crushing assault in which all weapons would be used, with the exception of chemical weapons.

What Russia seeks to obtain from the United States is merely for the latter to get itself "preoccupied" by something else while this major assault is carried out, something which it considers to be the inevitable "price" to be paid by the U.S. administration in order to obtain a pledge from Iran to suspend the nuclear program that would pacify Obama's own pledge. The proponents of such Russian enthusiasm perhaps have in mind the date of the 20th of this month, when the United States transitions from one administration to another, while Barack Obama would be distracted with celebrating his second term as president and appointing the leaders of his new administration. Indeed, Moscow is working on a trade-off between the "nuclear issue" and the "regional role," both of which Tehran insists on in any negotiations. Moscow considers that there is a way to circumvent Obama's need to evade his pledge of not allowing Iran to become a nuclear state, and this is why it is working on sponsoring the bargain, which would -- in its opinion -- ensure killing two birds with one stone: giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime the opportunity to crush the armed opposition and "eradicate" the jihadists on the one hand; and saving the regime in Tehran from a confrontation with the United States or Israel due to its nuclear ambitions -- this not by doing away with such ambitions, but rather by merely suspending and delaying them.

If President Obama were to agree to such a bargain, he would either be committing a costly strategic mistake, by buying strictly tactical nuclear "suspension" in exchange for remaining silent about massacres in Syria that would serve Iran's ambitions of regional hegemony, or in effect confirming the widespread theory that the strategy of the United States for the Middle East is always one of igniting sectarian wars, at times in favor of the Sunnis and at others in favor of the Shiites, so as to keep the region hostage to its whims. The leaders of the regime in Tehran, headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, will never give up their nuclear ambitions or their ambitions for regional hegemony. The Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic may agree to take a step back, but he always takes two steps to the front in parallel, so as to remain a winner under any circumstances at the nuclear, as well as regional, levels. He may concede by virtue of the alleged bargain, but what he will offer will only be theoretical, while the price he will obtain will be on the field, in a fundamental battle for survival for the regime in Tehran, namely the battle over Syria.

President George W. Bush's war in Iraq gave Iraq as a present to Iran -- and what is most shocking is that although major Gulf countries participated in Bush's war, the result came at their expense in the regional balance of power. The war in Syria may well become Obama's war if he were to agree to the presumed bargain by giving Syria as yet another present to the Islamic Republic of Iran. If he were to do so, Obama's historical legacy would end up being that of enabling Iran to become a nuclear state with legitimate regional hegemony. Iraq had been an open field for the pull-and-tug of sectarian wars under Saddam Hussein as well as after him, and Syria may well fall into such a vortex. The fate of the bargain said to be taking shape between Moscow and Washington will not lie exclusively in the hands of the Barack Obama administration, Vladimir Putin's government or Tehran's mullahs, if an active country from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were to take clear stances that would leap over the notion of what America wants for us and what it does to us. Indeed, if there is one last chance for the GCC countries to carry exceptional influence and weight, the time for it is now -- during the space of time between today and the time when the United States' oil capabilities are fully tapped into.

Talk of bargains remains under the heading of predictions and speculations, although the matter seems somewhat suspicious. Transitional phases from one administration to another seem in the opinion of some to represent an opportunity to bring about radical changes without being held to account. Perhaps this is mere wishful thinking on the part of those who seek to settle the matter with bloodshed, while America is distracted with its celebrations, and there is perhaps no way to "ignore" or "remain silent" no matter what. In fact, perhaps all of this talk of bargains of this kind is meant merely to cover up a completely different reality - the reality of Iran being shackled by its isolation and sanctions, the reality of reduced Russian influence in the region and with the United States, and the reality of the approaching collapse of the regime in Damascus.

Anything is possible. What matters is not to suffice oneself with theories and with waiting, because we are in a decisive phase that cannot bear repose.