09/28/2013 09:11 am ET Updated Nov 28, 2013

Obama's Mixed But Improved (For Now) Week on Iran and Syria

With Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about to leave on a week-long trip to South Korea and Japan and President Barack Obama headed for a big Asia-Pacific tour next month, to be followed by yet another Hagel tour, it's clear that the Asia-Pacific Pivot is underway.

But this week makes it clear that, even with the suddenly spun-up Syria crisis back to back burner status, there is much in the Middle East to complicate things. (And let's not even talk about the craziness in Washington around shutting down the government.)

After speaking by phone with the new Iranian president on Friday, President Barack Obama expressed optimism about a diplomatic solution to the long simmering crisis over Iran's moves toward nuclear weapons capability. "I believe we can reach a comprehensive solution," he declared. "We're mindful of all the challenges ahead. The very fact that this was the first communication between an American and Iranian president since 1979 underscores the deep mistrust between our countries, but it also indicates the prospect of moving beyond that difficult history. I do believe that there is a basis for a resolution."

Obama made it plain in his big speech Tuesday in New York as part of the annual gathering of heads of government around the United Nations General Assembly that the Middle East is still very much on his mind. The suddenly wound down, by Russia, Syrian crisis, the chronic Iranian nuclear crisis, and the perennial Israeli/Palestinian imbroglio. So there is that. And U.S. geopolitics in general continues to be roiled by revelations in the Snowden affair. The ex-NSA analyst is safely ensconced in his temporary asylum in Russia, where he was literally driven, quite unwisely, by the Obama Administration, which again played into the hands of President Vladimir Putin. The 30-year old leaker, supposedly such a fame-seeking narcissist, hasn't said a word in weeks, but his revelations continue to emanate and reverberate around the world.

Obama also made it increasingly clear as the week wore on, especially in his hastily scheduled remarks to the nation Friday afternoon, that he is moving to settle these matters. (Though he hasn't addressed the Snowden affair in any public sort of way after his disastrous claims to a sort of transparency shattered.)

So where is Obama on this stuff?

** The Iranian Nuke

Much will turn on how credible new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who on Tuesday addressed the UN General Assembly in New York, is at seeming to be a moderate. Rouhani is no outsider to the Tehran regime; he headed the national security department for virtually all of the 1990s, was head of the defense department for most of the 1980s, and was secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council from 1989 to 2005. These were not generally years of Iranian moderation. (That's a little joke.) Which does not prove that he has not become a moderate, merely that all the knee-jerk relief at his ascendance may be uninformed.

One can spin up scenarios for and against on this figure, but that's all it will be in the surface way of things. Knowing where this guy is really coming from, and how much ability he actually has to affect events, will be one of the key intelligence calls of the decade.

How is the new Iranian president playing with the global community the day after his more moderate sounding UN speech, in which he acknowledged the vile reality of the Holocaust, something other Iranian leaders have at times denied? (Though hardliners back in Tehran say he was misinterpreted.) Pretty well. How will Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, whose speech last year about his latest impending red line for a nuclearized Iran, which hasn't happened yet, respond? Will he continue to simply deny a new possibility? Or will he have a new tack? We may not know that until the end of the month, when Netanyahu visits Obama to discuss the Iranian question.

And when he does, he has another question to answer.

President Hassan Rouhani, having apparently acknowledged and decried the Holocaust, though hardliners in Tehran dispute the specifics of the translation, upped the ante on Thursday appearing at a UN forum on nuclear disarmament.

He called for an end to nuclear weapons around the world. And then he elegantly pounced on Israel, the Middle East's only nuclear power, and only country in the region which is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Israel, he said, should come clean about its own nuclear arsenal. He didn't go much farther than that. But you can bet that Israel's nuclear supremacy in the Middle East will be an issue going forward.

Is the "existential threat" that Netanyahu and many others refer to in regard to an Iranian bomb based on fear that hardline theocrats would sacrifice themselves and their regime in a nuclear exchange with Israel just to end Israel's existence? Or does the existential threat come from fear that a nuclear counter-balance in the region would help negate Israel's vast superiority in conventional warfare?

** The Syrian WMD

As for the Syria crisis, which was close to pseudo-Cuban Missile Crisis proportions just the other day before the Russians came up with their solution, that has receded even further from a potential U.S. attack.

The UN Security Council adopted a resolution which seems to threaten force if the Assad regime does not fully comply in turning over chemical weapons. But it really does not. For the force provision would have to be specifically approved in a subsequent resolution, and Russia and China would almost certainly veto it.

** The Snowden Affair

Obama had a very mixed day Tuesday on his day in the UN spotlight.He was immediately preceded in his UN address by Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff, who made it plain that her country's irritation with the US for its massive spy program has not abated since she canceled the long in the works Brazil state visit to the White House set for next month.She delivered a lengthy speech excoriating the US and the Obama Administration for spying on her, her staff, her government, Brazilian private citizens, and Brazilian companies all in the name of combating terrorism.

When Obama spoke, he said little to try to counter the Brazilian attack. Instead, in a well-received talk, he made plain that -- even as the administration continues moving on the Asia-Pacific Pivot -- his mind is still much on the Middle East, pushing as he did what looks like an again stalled Israeli/Palestinian peace process, hailing the agreement on chemical weapons in Syria, and talking of a possible opening with Iran's new president with regard to the Tehran regime's nuclear program.

The ex-NSA analyst is safely ensconced in his temporary asylum in Russia, where he was literally driven, quite unwisely, by the Obama Administration. The 30-year old leaker hasn't said a word in weeks, but his revelations continue to emanate and reverberate around the world.

** The Asia-Pacific Pivot

Meanwhile, the beat went on in the Asia-Pacific Pivot. (See my archive of Pivot-related pieces here.)

Friday brought more Asia-Pacific Pivot activity, as Obama welcomed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India to the White House. They discussed the Pivot, India's unique role in global affairs, and opportunities to heighten an alliance between the two nations.

Defense Secretary Hagel leaves Saturday for his latest week-long trip to the region, heading for Seoul, South Korea. He'll be in Japan after that, then back again for extended travel in the region in October.

Obama himself will be there October 6 through 12 for major Asian summitry.

These are interesting times.

Is Obama getting them right? Well, it looks like pretzel logic at times, and I can't imagine that what we are seeing is the unfolding of an overall scenario, but he may be on his way to extricating himself from impasses on Syria and Iran.

Will the ways in which these things are accomplished, assuming they are, create more problems down the line? That would be your $64,000 question.

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