11/07/2012 11:19 am ET Updated Jan 07, 2013

Will Despots in Iran, Syria Privately Welcome Obama's Win?

The Middle East is a region where Barack Obama promised much and delivered little in his first term as president.

Almost from the outset, he disappointed Iranians. As their pro-democracy protests of 2009 were brutally crushed, they chanted, " Obama, Obama are you with us or against us?" while the White House remained largely silent. Obama's continued outstretched hand to the Iranian regime, his sending two letters to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei seeking cooperation between their governments, and his video message promising "mutual respect," further demoralized many reform-minded Iranians.

Later in his first term, Syrian civilians were left confused, bewildered and angry as Obama did next to nothing to come to their aid while the Assad regime mercilessly mowed them down.

He also managed, through the sheer clumsiness and incoherence of his approach, to infuriate Israelis and Palestinians in equal measure. Indeed exit polls of the 100,000 dual American-Israeli citizens residing in Israel showed they voted for Romney by a whopping 85 percent -- in marked contrast to Jews in the U.S. who remain solidly Democrat. (69 percent of Jews voted for Obama, 30 percent for Romney, according to CNN. In 2008, 78 percent of American Jews voted for Obama.)

While many fans of Obama in America claim that he is a far more popular president abroad than his much-detested predecessor, George W. Bush, this has not in fact been the case -- at least not in the Middle East. Obama thought Arabs and Iranians would embrace him and they haven't. Nor did they do so in Pakistan, where pre-election polls showed more people wanted a Romney victory than an Obama one.

From as early as the end of his first year in office, the Pew Global Attitudes Poll confirmed that Obama's election had not improved America's standing in the Muslim world. In the Palestinian territories, 15 percent said they had a favorable view of the U.S. while 82 percent had an unfavorable one. Obama's 2009 speech in Ankara didn't seem to help in Turkey, where 14 percent then said they had a favorable view of him and 69 percent unfavorable. Obama's ratings were hardly any better elsewhere in the region. Indeed no one I have spoken to there quite understands why he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize.

While it remains the case that in the "Arab street" there is still a feeling that Obama is more like them than Romney is, especially since they regard Obama's father to have been a Muslim, many others in the Middle East are expressing anxiety this morning about the news that Obama has secured a second term.

This is particularly so in Israel where people fear he will exert strong pressure on the country to withdraw from territory which lies only a few miles from Tel Aviv before a genuine partner for peace has been found among the Palestinian rulers. Israelis saw what happened after they withdrew from Gaza only to then be on the receiving end of thousands of missile attacks from the land they left, and want to ensure that any withdrawal from the West Bank don't result in a similar situation occurring even closer to Israel's major population centers.

And there is real despair this morning among many anti-regime Syrians who were hoping and praying that a Romney victory might bring much-needed U.S. military assistance in the form of a no-fly-zone, or arms supplies to help them defend themselves against Assad's forces.

Among the Arab leadership, particularly in the Gulf, many indicated behind the scenes, that they would feel more comfortable with a man like Romney, i.e. someone who is familiar with the world of IPOs, and mergers and acquisitions, and all the terminology of big business, and who is himself someone of considerable means. They have never been thrilled at dealing with Obama, whom some privately dismiss as part community organizer, part naïve leftist academic. "Romney fits in more with our comfort zone," one member of a ruling family in a pro-Western Gulf state said to me.

Many Arab governments are led by people who have spent most of their lives accumulating wealth for themselves and their families, much like Romney. However, unlike Romney, they have little interest in pursuing democratic goals, or granting equal rights to women, so they need no longer be concerned by the prospect of neo-con advisors to Romney who might have done precisely that.

As for the leaders in Iran, like those in Russia and China, they will privately welcome Obama's win, since he is likely to continue to allow them to get away with much mischief on the international stage while Romney might have taken a harder line. They regard Obama as weak, and believe that another Obama term will enable them further to dilute America's global influence.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders in the region have released polite press statements this morning congratulating Barack Obama and saying they look forward to working with him in his second term.

But privately they and other Middle Easterners realized during the campaign that it seems that in his second term Obama will seek to avoid too much involvement in the Middle East (or too many "foreign entanglements" in general) -- his premier task will be to concentrate on reviving the American economy. After seeing the final, foreign policy, presidential debate many understood that America was a war-weary nation, and both candidates sought to end existing wars and avoid new ones.

He may try to slip them down his list of priorities, but the ever-growing Iranian nuclear threat, and the wave of change and turmoil currently engulfing much of the Arab world will ultimately prove too dangerous for America, which still remains the world's premier power, to ignore.

(Tom Gross is a former Jerusalem correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph and New York Daily News. )