New Kid on the Mideast Block

By Meir Javedanfar

Obama's victory in the health care debate is not only a domestic achievement for the U.S. president, but also a boost to his standing abroad, especially in the Middle East. This will be important as the president moves forward with both Israel and Iran.

Until recently, both Tehran and Jerusalem saw the health care debate as an item that could significantly weaken Obama's standing at home, which in turn would reduce his leverage abroad. They were hoping that a defeat would force Obama to focus on his troubles at home.

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But both governments will now have to face the fact that Barack Obama is more than just a smooth talking politician. That he managed to get this far reaching reform bill passed the Senate, after being in office for little more than a year in his first term, will speak volumes about his capability as a politician.

The news comes at a particularly bad time for the Iranian government. Obama's second Iranian New Year message again offered the path of negotiation to Iran's leadership and recognized the country's right to nuclear energy, while condemning the Iranian regime for snubbing efforts at rapprochement. Khamenei would have much preferred it if Obama had just launched into a verbal attack, or better still, hadn't said anything at all.

As the past two years have shown, the people of Iran have the Nowruz greeting of the world's most powerful politician to look forward to, even before their own leaders greet them. This reduces the audience and credibility of the message put out by Iran's own leadership. So much so that immediately after Obama's message, Khamenei felt compelled to attack Obama and accuse him of wanting to cause regime change in Iran.

There is also the Russia and China factor. The Russians, who many Iranian conservatives were counting on for support, are now openly saying that they would support "smart sanctions" against Iran.

Worse still is the recent news from China. The Chinese government has so far been the only permanent member of the UN Security Council who has been steadfastly against sanctions. However, below the surface, the Chinese have started to hit Ayatollah Khamenei's pockets where it hurts. In the first two months of 2010, in comparison to the same time last year, the Chinese government has reduced oil imports from Iran by up to 40 percent. This is in direct contrast to oil imports from Saudi Arabia, Angola and Russia, which have increased 5.4 percent, 71.6 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively.

This is terrible news for Iranian conservatives, as China seems to have already decided that dealing with the current Iranian government is against its interest. And while the Chinese government may not be following the West's political rhetoric to the line, when it comes to substantive action, Beijing appears to have joined in and even overtaken some EU countries in putting the economic pinch on Iran.

These developments, plus Obama's strengthened standing at home, will now make it easier for the president to impose tougher sanctions and further isolate the Iranian regime. There should also be no mistake that the military option against Iran is still on the table. Obama is by no means a pacifist. If sanctions fail and he is provided with accurate intelligence which says an attack would set back Iran's nuclear program by more than five years, and that the U.S. and its allies would be able to withstand Iran's retaliation, he may seriously consider or even exercise this option. Until now, having an African-American whose middle name is Hussein has been the stuff of nightmares for Iranian conservatives, and threatens their 30-year effort to portray America as a racist, anti-Islamic country. The fact that his position is now stronger at home must concern Tehran.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely take the boost in Obama's stronger domestic position into account. This may not force him to cease all new building projects in Jerusalem immediately, as it could mean the disintegration of his coalition government. However, it is very likely that he will take the freeze in West Bank seriously. And in the long run, it may even force Netanyahu to postpone some construction plans in Jerusalem, depending on his standing at home.

If American pressure were to become too much, Netanyahu may then look toward the corruption charges against Avigdor Lieberman. If Lieberman were to be sentenced, it's very unlikely that his party, Yisrael Beitenu, would survive without him. This would enable Netanyahu to pursue a deal with Kadima, whose 28 seats in the Knesset and more moderate policies towards the peace negotiations could give Bibi the domestic leeway to reach a deal with the Palestinian Authority.

Or better still, if Lieberman and other right wing members of Bibi's coalition government really want to hurt Khamenei, they would back a temporary cessation of all construction in Jerusalem to allow Jerusalem and Washington to focus on Iran. For now, they are helping Khamenei by shifting focus away from Tehran.

Unfortunately, ideology and pragmatism are in constant struggle in Israel, and the former currently appears to hold a much stronger hand. This is bad news for Israel, and wonderful news for the Iranian regime.

Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian-Israeli Middle East analyst. He is co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran.

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