While President Obama’s middle name and Muslim heritage might have caused him some heartburn during the campaign, he has wasted no time turning it into what could be a game changer in the delicate dance he must walk in the Middle East. Moreover, I contend that his foreign policy decisions that he has made so far in reference to the Middle East has been to realign Muslim opinion of America and its president so as to marshall the political capital that he will need to deal with issues such as Iran. So far he has done an excellent job and, with the Iranian elections in dispute, we could be witnessing the opening moves in the presidents gambit to strip Iran of nuclear weapons.
The first move came during Obama’s first days as president when he granted al-Arabiya the first interview with the new president. The symbolism of granting the first official presidential interview to an Arab news network was not lost on the Arab world.
The second move came in Ankara, when President Obama took time off from the G20 summit to fly to Ankara and make a speech where, among other things, he heartily endorsed Turkey’s bid for membership in the EU. Turkey holds a unique position, in that it is a strong American ally, has a powerhouse economy, and is a respected Muslim country. Indeed, when Israel and Syria began to feel out one another for a potential peace deal in the last days of Olmert’s tenure as Israel’s prime minister, they used Turkish mediators.
The next big move came when President Obama delivered a speech in Cairo to the Muslim world that was so well received that the president was interrupted by applause 12 times, peppered with shouts of “We love you!” and even given the nickname of abu Hussein.
This is bad news for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
For years the regime has been developing nuclear technology that many fear will someday be turned into nuclear weapons. And until this week, the president of Iran enjoyed some level of popularity in the Muslim world. He is widely seen as the man arming the Shiites of Iraq to fight against the United States’ deeply unpopular occupation, bankrolling Hizbollah in Lebanon which fought waged a war against Israel in 2006, and supporting Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In short, the man was popular with the crowd that hates America and Israel.
That places placed him in a very good position. He could develop nuclear technology and one of two things would happen: either the United States would attack the site and turn Mahmoud Ahmadinejad into a hero and martyr who was defending against the depredations of an imperial power (You see! They attacked us!) or he would go nuclear and have a much stronger bargaining position in all future relations with the U.S. and its allies. Such was the dilemma that George Bush faced, and there we have the heart of President Obama’s overtures to be a friendlier face to the Arab world:
“We are willing to extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”
President Obama’s determination to cast himself as the hero and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the aggressor is only receiving a greater boost from the turmoil that has engulfed Iranian politics. The question of whether or not the Iranian president election was legitimate is, at this point, irrelevant. The fact is that Tehran has been paralyzed by protesters who claim that it was, and U.S. and world opinion is aligning with that fact. President(?) Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is no longer showing his face in public and the Supreme Leader has been seen backpedaling from his initial full-throated support for the outcome, which has only fuel speculation on the legitimacy of the outcome.
At this point in Iran, two outcomes are likely and both are great for the United States. Either Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains as president after a potentially bloody internal struggle and is cast as a man who can only retain power when he and the clerics suppress opposition OR we end up with Mousavi who will be seen by a large part of his own population as a man who stole the election from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The result is a weak president with a weaker backbone of clerics.
Compared to either one of them, President Obama is starting to look good. The longer the legitimacy of the Iranian presidency remains in doubt, the more credibility President Obama will have when he challenges a leader viewed as illegitimate within and without Iran. And when the president chooses to use that public opinion against what will inevitably be an unpopular regime and their “weapons of mass destruction,” Iran’s nuclear ambitions might very well be thrown under the bus in order to shore up international legitimacy.