The improved situation in Iraq will allow the new administration to shift its focus to Iran, where the clock is ticking on a dangerous and destabilizing nuclear program. Obama should offer direct official engagement with the Iranian government, without preconditions, along with other incentives in an attempt to turn Tehran away from developing the capacity to rapidly produce substantial amounts of nuclear-weapons-grade fuel. At the same time, he should lay the groundwork for an international effort to impose harsher sanctions on Iran if it proves unwilling to change course.
… Iran’s challenge has led other actors in the region to begin to work together and look to the United States for help. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have grown deeply disillusioned with U.S. leadership but would welcome an effective U.S. role. Even Syria, Iran’s ally, has launched peace negotiations with Israel partly to improve its relations with Washington and partly to avoid being stuck on the Shiite side of the emerging Sunni-Shiite divide. If the Obama administration could show that there are real payoffs for moderation, reconciliation, negotiation, and political and economic reform, it would recoup considerable U.S. influence throughout the region.
Obama will have to decide what to do about the conundrum posed by Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in January 2006 and then took control of Gaza through a military putsch in June 2007. Hamas rejects both Israel’s right to exist and the agreements the Palestinians have already entered into with Israel. It also advocates and practices violence and terrorism (which it calls “resistance”) against Israel. Nonetheless, given Hamas’ control of Gaza and its support among at least one-third of Palestinians, a peace process that excludes it could well fail.
The way out of this dilemma is to make it clear that Hamas, and not the United States, is responsible for the Gazans’ fate.
I link to the essay, not because I agree with everything in it — parts of it strike me as over-optimistic — but because it is interesting and timely and it collects a useful list of problems facing the new “leader of the free world” in a region that is more important to World opinion than it is to humanity’s well-being. Indeed, I feel that the Middle East (especially Israel and the Palestinian Territories) generates discussion out of proportion with the number of human beings living there and the economic significance of their activities. Others go even further.