The world community can heave a sigh of relief since there might not be an outbreak of wars led by the United States between now and November. That was one message of President Barack Obama’s press conference in the White House on Tuesday.
Obama spoke on the two Middle Eastern “hotspots” – Iran and Syria – with a common thread: while he is tenaciously looking for ways to pursue policies that serve American interests, his preferred option is not to resort to the use of force.
Obama launched a frontal offensive on the Republican right, saying they were being irresponsible and vacuous in beating the war drums on Iran and Syria. Obama knows he is in sync with the mood of the American public, which is preoccupied with the economy.
The press conference came a day after Obama’s talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and he visibly took pleasure in giving a knockout punch to media hype (inspired largely by the Israelis) that his re-election bid might be in jeopardy unless he agreed Iran was fast nearing the “zone of immunity” in its nuclear program.
Obama warned that any premature action by Israel would have “consequences” for the US as well and that a “careful, thoughtful, sober approach” was needed.
The intriguing part is that Obama knew very well that he was also speaking to another foreign audience – in the highest echelons of power in Tehran – who were listening attentively when he said:
“Now, the one thing that we have not done is we haven’t launched a war. If some of these folks think that it’s time to launch a war, they should say so. And they should explain to the American people exactly why they would do that and what the consequences would be. Everything else is just talk.” [Emphasis added.]
On the one hand, Obama sounded even more hopeful than in the week before about engaging Iran:
“At this stage … we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically. That’s not just my view. That’s the view of our top intelligence officials … The Iranians just stated that they are willing to return to the negotiating table. And we’ve got the opportunity … to see how it plays out.”
But on the other hand, he spelt out his expectations:
To resolve this issue will require Iran to come to the table and discuss in a clear and forthright way how to prove to the international community that the intentions of their nuclear program are peaceful. They know how to do it … It obviously has to be methodical. I don’t expect a breakthrough in a first meeting … And there are steps that they can take that would send a signal to the international community and that are verifiable, that would allow them to be in compliance with international norms, in compliance with international mandates, abiding by the non-proliferation treaty, and provide the world an assurance that they’re not pursuing a nuclear weapon.
The Iranians would be justified in estimating that Obama is setting the pace. Ali Larijani, former nuclear negotiator and influential speaker of the outgoing Majlis (parliament), reacted on Wednesday saying it would be counter-productive if “the West continues to put Iran under pressure”.
“If they [the West] seek to go with their previous course of action and try to force concessions under pressure, negotiations will yield no results”, Larijani, who is close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned. But then, he also reiterated that Iran is not after nuclear bombs.
Iran’s deputy foreign minister in charge of Europe and America, Ali Asghar Khaji, in turn urged the West to be “innovative” and to come up with “more initiatives”. Clearly, sparring has begun.
One at a time
Moving on to Syria, Obama said there isn’t going to be a unilateralist US military intervention in that country. However, the strategy will be to seek regime change. In short, call “regime change” by any other name if you will, and, second, it will have to be by means other than a US invasion of Syria.
Obama said the issue is not whether or if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would go, “it’s a question of when”. However, he made a careful distinction between what happened in Libya and the Syrian situation.
The international community is yet to be mobilized on Syria; no mandate from the United Nations Security Council is available; the “full cooperation” of the Arab states is not yet realized; and, the project may not even be achievable in a “relatively short period of time”. All of this makes the Syrian situation much more complicated.
All the same, the US will continue to work on the project with “key Arab states and key international partners” and is planning “how do we support the opposition; how do we provide humanitarian assistance; how do we continue the political isolation [of Bashar]; how do we continue the economic isolation.”
Obama avoided explicitly committing on any form of military assistance to the Syrian opposition, although Foreign Policy magazine claimed separately on Tuesday on the basis of extensive deep briefings by unnamed senior US officials that Washington is edging close to doing that.
One factor could be that a number of diplomatic moves are under way. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is about to engage the Arab League on Saturday; Beijing has mooted a six-point plan on Syria; yet another Chinese special envoy arrived in Damascus on Tuesday.
Besides, Kofi Annan, joint special envoy of the UN and Arab League, was expected to commence his mediatory mission in Cairo on Wednesday before reaching Damascus in the weekend; last but not the least, Syria has agreed to schedule a visit by Valerie Amos, UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs.
Alongside, a revised US draft resolution on Syria has just been mooted in the UN Security Council, on which Washington hopes to negotiate Russian and Chinese acceptance.
Clearly, Obama made no overtures to Russia or China. Nor did he evince any interest to work with them, leave alone acknowledge their robust efforts at peacemaking. Plainly put, he showed indifference towards the Russians and Chinese.
The US diplomacy could be estimating that while the Russian and Chinese diplomatic efforts on Syria converge in many respects, they also may have an independent character. But both Moscow and Beijing insist on dialogue and oppose foreign interference; they also endorse Assad’s reform program.
Russia’s Ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, accused in an open meeting of the Security Council on Syria in New York on Wednesday, “We have received information that in Libya, with the support of the authorities, there is a special training center for the Syrian revolutionaries and people are sent to Syria to attack the legal government. This is, according to international law, completely unacceptable.”
The Russian imputation couldn’t have been lost on Washington, although Churkin didn’t exactly point a finger at who could be putting the fragile Libyan government through such a high-risk enterprise. Meanwhile, the Russian foreign ministry specifically warned the West not to expect any change in Moscow’s Syria policy following the election victory of Vladimir Putin. (Putin made global meddling by the US one of his campaign themes.)
The foreign ministry said, “Russia’s position on a Syrian settlement was never subject to political considerations and is not formed under the influence of electoral cycles, unlike those of some of our Western colleagues. Our approaches to a resolution of internal conflicts are based on international law and the UN Charter. We are talking primarily about strict adherence to the principle of inadmissibility of interference from the outside.”
Obama’s intention, partly at least, would have been to grandstand before the American public on a Super Tuesday when the Mitt Romney campaign moved aggressively. Nonetheless, without resorting to propaganda blast or showing signs of hand-wringing, he struck a diplomatic balance by stressing negotiations with Iran, while largely maintaining the tough course on Syria.
And if there were indeed any linkage between the situation around Iran and the Syrian crisis, Obama wouldn’t talk about it. One at a time – that’s the Obama way.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.