The Obama administration faces four ongoing crises in the greater Middle East: the fighting and mayhem in the AfPak region; Iraq's struggle to establish a stable, nonsectarian government; Iran's nuclear and terrorist activity; and the unresolved Arab-Israel conflict. All four crises, in different ways, pose both opportunities and dangers for the United States in the months and years ahead. How effectively the administration focuses its resources to meet these challenges will determine Obama's foreign-policy record as he contemplates a reelection bid in 2012.
Clearly the present priority must be Afghanistan, if only because failure there would put at risk the stability of Pakistan which is of vital importance to the United States and the region. If Islamabad manages to get its act together and work out a modus vivendi with India, Afghanistan should cease to be top of the American list of concerns. At that point Afghanistan's neighbors, including India, Pakistan, China, Russia, Iran and Uzbekistan should be the activists, since all for somewhat different reasons want to see Afghanistan stable. The United States and NATO have an immediate security goal of destroying al-Qaeda remnants and checking the Taliban but in the long run they need to get out of Afghanistan.
Likewise the United States must continue to drawn down its military capacity in Iraq, though the time frame will have to be adjusted to the wishes of the Iraqi government. If, as is hoped, Baghdad manages to put together a coherent coalition not overly beholden to sectarian politics, then it is likely America will be asked to keep a residual presence in the country, especially in terms of air power. But Obama is right to keep to the time line of ending combat operations this year and drawing down most of the U.S. forces by 2011. A relatively stable, friendly Iraq will be a great asset for Washington in the Middle East and will make other issues, especially Iran and the Arab-Israel conflict more manageable.
Concerning Iran, it is inevitable that the mullahs will attempt to influence events in Baghdad, but the United States should not over-estimate their long term influence in that country. The Shiite polity is grateful to Iran for help but is not overly beholden to Tehran. This is particularly true of the secular Shiite community which looks with horror at the theological ranting of Iran's more extreme mullahs. So with this factor in mind, the United States should not overreact to every statement coming from Tehran and every new piece of evidence about their nuclear proclivities. The preferred way to address the nuclear issue continues to be multilateral efforts to put pressure on Tehran no matter how many meetings it takes. There is some evidence both Russia and China are more willing to support new, if weak, sanctions. The purpose of UN-sponsored sanctions is not to roll back the Iranian program; this won't happen. Their purpose is to signal to Tehran that it will continue to be subject to international opprobrium and increasingly tough financial pressure from the United States and Europe. Sooner or later a serious debate in Iran about the wisdom of its noncooperation with the IAEA will become more intense and may cause the leadership to slow down its program.
But if Iran continues to stoke the flames in Lebanon and Gaza by providing support to Hezbollah and Hamas, this requires a more robust U.S. response. It is Iran's Mediterranean policies that are most likely to trigger a conflict with the United States and Israel that would invariably bring in Iran's close ally, Syria. Reports that Syria has supplied Hezbollah with Scud missiles have not been confirmed but if such weapons have been sent into Lebanon this is may be in direct violation of UNSC Resolution 1701 adopted in August 2006, which prohibits the supply of weapons to entities in Lebanon without the explicit consent of the government in Beirut. Thus the only way to legally justify the Scud transfer would be if the Lebanese government approved such action. Even if this were the case, Israel would regard the transfer as a major threat and would certainly contemplate preemptive action.
Since there is no clear evidence that the missiles have been transferred, the current hullabaloo may be premature. But it is precisely this sort of incident that will force the United States to put the Arab-Israel conflict high on the agenda, rather than attempts at jumpstarting Israeli-Palestinian talks at a time when neither side has the interests or the capacity to engage each other.
Geoffrey Kemp is the Director of Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center.