Monday, February 09, 2009

Obama's message to the middle east

In a press conference focused mainly on the stimulus bill and the economy, Obama seized on a terse (and slighly bizarre) question from Helen Thomas to send a strong signal to Iran, the middle east, Russia and the world at large that the U.S. will take a fundamentally different approach to its relations with other nations.

Thomas asked, "do you know of any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons?" Obama's response:

With respect to nuclear weapons, you know, I don't want to speculate. What I know is this: that if we see a nuclear arms race in a region as volatile as the Middle East, everybody will be in danger.

And one of my goals is to prevent nuclear proliferation generally. I think that it's important for the United States, in concert with Russia, to lead the way on this.

And, you know, I've mentioned this in conversations with the Russian president, Mr. Medvedev, to let him know that it is important for us to restart the -- the conversations about how we can start reducing our nuclear arsenals in an effective way so that...... so that we then have the standing to go to other countries and start stitching back together the nonproliferation treaties that, frankly, have been weakened over the last several years.

Obama seems to be signaling a few moves on the chessboard here. First, that he might expect to get more cooperation from the Russians in pressuring Iran to halt nuclear weapons development if we first work with the Russians toward reducing our own arsenals. That's a good-faith move that points in two directions: toward Russia, by foregrounding work on a matter of bilateral interest that's less fraught than issues of NATO expansion or missile defense (though it comes near the latter and might encompass it) -- and toward Iran, for which a nuclear reduction move by the U.S. and Russia might might provide face-saving cover for a curb on nuclear enrichment.

This unprompted proposal picked up on the conciliatory undercurrent in Obama's response to a prior question, whether there were any signs that Iran was interested in dialogue. Obama responded pretty much as he had in the campaign -- with an obligatory litany of Iran's "unhelpful" actions, a vow to "take an approach with Iran that employs all of the resources at the United States' disposal, and that includes diplomacy," and an affirmation of "the possibility at least of a relationship of mutual respect and progress."

But coming from a sitting U.S. president, the tone and context in which Obama placed the nuclear threat was a real departure. In two references to Iran's nuclear proliferation, Obama emphasized not any affront to the U.S. but the destabilizing effect on the region. He also implicitly suggested mutual responsibility for the "mistrust" between the U.S. and Iran. My emphasis below :
I said during the campaign that Iran is a country that has extraordinary people, extraordinary history and traditions, but that its actions over many years now have been unhelpful when it comes to promoting peace and prosperity both in the region and around the world; that their attacks or -- or their -- their financing of terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas, the bellicose language that they've used towards Israel, their development of a nuclear weapon or their pursuit of a nuclear weapon -- that all of those things create the possibility of destabilizing the region and are not only contrary to our interests, but I think are contrary to the interests of international peace.....

There's been a lot of mistrust built up over the years, so it's [a change of policy] not going to happen overnight.

And it's important that even as we engage in this direct diplomacy, we are very clear about certain deep concerns that we have as a country, that Iran understands that we find the funding of terrorist organizations unacceptable, that we're clear about the fact that a nuclear Iran could set off a nuclear arms race in the region that would be profoundly destabilizing. So there are going to be a set of objectives that we have in these conversations, but I think that there's the possibility, at least, of a relationship of mutual respect and progress
There's nothing remarkable in asserting that a nuclear Iran would destabilize the region. What's notable is the absence of posturing, the removal of the dispute from the realm of one-on-one confrontation. The big stick is not invisible, but Obama speaks soft.

And to step back and rub one's eyes for a moment: a U.S. President, asked about nuclear proliferation in the middle east, responds that the U.S. has to lead by example on the nonproliferation front. Can we have the audacity to hope that the Obama Administration will also strive to lead by example in other efforts where international cooperation is essential, such as climate change and coordinated response to the economic crisis?

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