The Corner

Obama and the Middle East

Whatever President Obama’s desires for the next few months, several Middle East crises now stare him in the face.

The greatest is Iran, which keeps on installing centrifuges and pilling up enriched uranium while we chat, negotiate, chat about negotiating, and vote. The Iranians can easily play out the clock — unless we stop them. President Obama has repeatedly said he would do so, but that of course was during the campaign. Now what? Rumors about secret talks continue to circulate, and one Israeli newspaper has published the story that our — the United States — negotiator was Valerie Jarrett! What must even John Kerry and Hillary Clinton really think of that? The White House has yet to issue a denial of that story, as far as I am aware.

The easiest escape route for Obama is a deal, any deal, with Iran. He can then claim to have solved the nuclear problem or at least delayed it — but can also expect that skeptical Republicans will challenge terms that appear to allow the Iranian program to continue. Republicans, including Governor Romney, stuck to the terms of the U.N. Security Council resolutions: zero enrichment, export of all enriched uranium. An Obama deal that would allow enrichment would allow Iran to master the process fully, keep the Fordow and Natanz enrichment sites open, and introduce more efficient centrifuges. That’s a bad deal Republicans should rally in opposition to it. It is quite possible that Ayatollah Khamenei will not agree to any deal with the Great Satan, leaving Obama with an even greater problem: let Iran move forward toward the bomb or actually use those “options on the table” that include military force. But when Obama hears from the Pentagon that any American strike must take weeks and be a small war, he may find that he wants to think again about the utility of an Israeli strike. Again, the most likely outcome is a bad deal — the Ayatollah willing. And the beginning of the bad deal would be bilateral negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. Watch for it.

On Syria, Obama will have to abandon his politically derived allergy to American action. Nearly 40,000 are dead and the war must be ended — with Assad gone. I believe the current efforts to remake the opposition are a prelude to more American action on the ground, likely via CIA. Look for secret strikes, drone strikes, arming the rebels, and the like — the kind of indirect, quick, deniable (unless successful) military action Obama likes best.

Two more issues that are not crises: the “Arab Spring” and the rise of Islamic governments, and the Israeli-Palestinian issue. On the former, look for more accommodationism. Obama will not want to confront the new regimes on issues like religious freedom, freedom of speech and press, and the role of Islam in society. On the latter, look for a few initiatives: I believe there will be some form of negotiations next year after the Israeli elections. Those January 22 elections deliver a useful cooling off period now, until a new coalition is formed around March 1. Obama will then seek to get them to the table — where nothing will be agreed. A second-term Obama policy may not push as hard, and as publicly, for a deal as his first-term policy tried (and failed dismally), but it will still fail to focus on the slow, steady, unromantic work of building institutions in the West Bank that could someday form the basis for a state.

Finally, Obama will confront another problem: lack of skilled manpower. Several of the top experts in the State Department have left or will probably leave soon: Jeffrey Feltman, Jim Jeffrey, and Bill Burns are examples. Who will be named assistant secretary of state for the Near East? Will old Democratic party hands like Martin Indyk and Dennis Ross be brought back again?

In the coming weeks look for any news stories suggesting more arms are moving to Syrian rebels, and stories about U.S.-Iran bilateral negotiations, open or secret.

Elliott Abrams — Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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