US will press for a 'grand deal' with Iran

Soon, Obama will have to address rising tensions in the Gulf autocracies and Saudi Arabia.

US president Barack Obama has two major challenges in West Asia which he needs to tackle seriously before his second inauguration at the end of January.

The most urgent is the crisis with Iran over its nuclear programme. The west claims Tehran plans to use its nuclear facilities to build weapons while Iran insists the aim is to generate electricity. 

The Obama administration has already been involved in secret talks with Tehran with the aim of concocting a ‘grand deal’ over the range of disputed issues, including its nuclear programme. However, no agreement could be reached until it was clear that Obama would have another term.

With the aim of demonstrating his determination to squeeze Iran until a deal is reached, Obama's first act after the election result was to tighten the screw of sanctions.

Sanctions have begun to bite seriously, curbing Iran’s ability to export its oil, forcing Tehran to cut imports of key items, including medicines, and driving down the value of the currency. Although Tehran has responded with verbal defiance and an attempt to shoot down a US drone over the Gulf, at the upper reaches of the regime there appears to be a readiness to talk.

Not a taboo

Muhammad Javad Larijani, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,  stated, “Negotiating with the US is not a taboo...If it benefits the system, we will negotiate with the USA, even in the depths of hell.”

He is head of Iran’s human rights council and brother of both Ali Larijani, speaker of parliament, and Sadeq Larijani, head of the judiciary.

Trita Parsi, president of the Washington-based Iranian American Council, observed, "Obama's re-election paves the way for utilising an important opportunity that exists between today and the Iranian New Year in March 2013.  This is a period in which both sides enjoy maximum political manoeuvrability."

Commentators argue that the ‘grand deal’ must be achieved by then as Iran will enter the presidential election campaign period which could put off talks for many months.

Obama will also have to promptly address the Syrian crisis. So far, his policy of keeping his distance from the conflict while encouraging Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to aid the rebels has failed to oust President Bashar al-Assad, caused a great deal of bloodshed, and precipitated a humanitarian crisis.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s gamble on the expatriate opposition Syrian National Council and the rebel Free Syrian Army has not paid off. Divisions within the political opposition have not been bridged.

The Free Army command, hosted by Turkey, claims to have shifted to northern Syria in order to restructure fighters into five geographic formations. 

But in recent months, rebel groups have multiplied, becoming more diverse and resistant to control by defected officers, while fundamentalist jihadis have boosted their presence on the ground, making it impossible to impose command and control.

To make matters worse, the rebels have lost the support of civilians caught in the cross-fire, killed, wounded, and made homeless by the revolt against the regime.

The conflict threatens to spin out of control, engulfing Syria in sectarian strife that has already begun to spill-over into neighbouring countries.

Sooner than later,  Obama will have to address rising tensions in the Gulf autocracies and Saudi Arabia.  Shias seek equal rights in Sunni Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, which have used brute force to suppress protests.  In Kuwait, democrats are determined to boost the powers of parliament by compelling the ruling Sabah family to accept reform.

Washington and the West have responded by backing the autocrats and selling them arms, allegedly to deter and, even, fend off attacks from Iran if the US or Israel or both mount an air campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities.  But arming the autocrats does not solve their domestic problems.

These external challenges and Obama's fundamental focus on domestic problems are likely to postpone, once again, a fresh attempt to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Aware that US-Muslim relations are soured by Israel’s occupation of Arab land,  when he took office in 2009 Obama put pressure on Israel to halt Jewish colonisation of occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which the Palestinians require for their state.  He appointed former senator George Mitchell, who mediated the Northern Ireland accord, to launch a peace process that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state.

However, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not go along with Obama’s peace project.  Netanyahu not only rejects a halt to colonisation but also firmly opposes the so-called ‘two state solution.’

During the US election campaign, he gave his support to Obama's Republican rival, Mitt Romney. Consequently, Obama may be reluctant to tangle with Netanyahu any time soon, particularly since he is expected to return to power after an early parliamentary election at the end of January.

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