Mideast Shapes Presidential Race


abbas-netanyahuBy Steve Huntley

Americans are increasingly absorbed in presidential politics, and President Barack Obama wants to shift defense/foreign policy strategic emphasis to the Asian/Pacific region. But the Middle East persists as the part of the world where Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab-Spring-turned-winter pose fearsome challenges to peace and stability in a region vital to the global energy supply and thus to the planet’s economic health.

Nowhere do the stakes loom larger and more ominously than in Iran. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told CBS News this weekend that if Iran’s mullahs “decided to do it, it would probably take them about a year to be able to produce” a nuclear weapon.

That means Iran, a fanatical revolutionary state, is quite close to its goal despite ever-increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions and a covert campaign of computer viruses, industrial sabotage and targeted killings of Tehran’s top atomic scientists. The European Union has imposed an embargo on Iranian oil, and Congress has authorized Obama, in effect, to freeze international dealings with Iran’s central bank, potentially delivering a crippling blow to that country’s economy.

But some big players are not on board with the get-tough approach. Russia balks at sanctions. China and India, both with booming economies, won’t cut their imports of Iranian oil.

Obama and Panetta say the United States is committed to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, and that no option is off the table. Also possible is a military strike by Israel, for whom a nuclear Iran is an existential threat. Obama could find himself facing a tough decision later this year, maybe in the middle of a presidential election.

Meanwhile, representatives of Israel and Palestinians met five times in Jordan before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas halted the exploratory talks to consult with the Arab League. The Israelis came to the table advocating that most Israelis live under an Israeli government and most Palestinians under Palestinian sovereignty – pretty much recognized for more than a decade as the parameters for a territorial resolution to the conflict. Palestinian and Arab rejection on that compromise, along with continuing hostility to the idea of the Jewish state, remain the obstacles to a settlement.

It’s probably not a coincidence that the renewed talks were accompanied by a new outburst of anti-Israel incitement in the Palestinian media. The Palestinian Media Watch caught one of the Palestinian Authority’s highest religious officials citing Islamic tradition on PA-TV to say it was the Palestinians’ destiny to kill Jews. Another PA-TV broadcast praised the slaughter of an Israeli family of five last year. No wonder Israelis don’t see a peace partner.

Things aren’t any brighter elsewhere in the region. U.S.-Egyptian relations reached a low when Cairo barred half a dozen U.S. citizens with pro-democracy groups, including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, from leaving the country. Two Americans fearing arrest sought sanctuary in the U.S. embassy.

Syria seems to be descending toward civil war. In Libya, militia loyal to the dead dictator Moammar Gadhafi staged attacks against the transitional government. And the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq saw a worrisome spike in sectarian violence.

In the Middle East, 2012 unfortunately looks to be another year of living dangerously.

{Chicago Sun-Times/Matzav.com Newscenter}