The developments in Iran since the June 12 presidential election have the Obama administration in dire straits, and this isn't even a metaphor. U.S. President Barack Obama is caught in the Strait of Hormuz, the bottleneck of the Arabian Gulf (a term the Americans use to flatter their local friends), or the Persian Gulf (as it is known to Iranians, among many others). Not a week passes without an official in Washington or Bahrain mentioning the passageway's importance for the world economy. The strait channels 40 percent of the world's energy - a fifth of the natural gas and over half the oil. The strait is traversed daily by around 10,000 vessels; some are oil tankers, some are fishing boats, and some are battle cruisers with weapons at the ready.
The strait, and the Gulf's western coast with its vast infrastructure of ports, terminals and refineries amid a massive civilian population, is precisely where the Iranians can set all hell loose to terrify the Gulf's Arab states - along with Europe and Japan - and to widen the front against Obama. Later on, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will grant Obama an achievement - the calming of the Gulf - in exchange for American acceptance of Iran as a threshold state: one nearing military nuclear capability.
Obama's weakness stems from a reversal of roles in American politics. Traditionally, the Republicans adopted realpolitik in building alliances against the Soviet bloc, even if America's allies didn't exactly uphold standards of liberty or hold free elections. The democrats, at least on paper, were dedicated to democracy. But George W. Bush professed a preference for "freedom before stability," putting Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt at risk and allowing Hamas to take part in and win the Palestinian elections. Obama, on the other hand, in his efforts to appear the opposite of Bush, is stressing soberness: He won't meddle in other countries' internal affairs.
This approach is particularly apparent when it comes to Iran, which after 50 years finally received a public apology for America's involvement in the coup that brought down prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq in favor of the Shah. Two weeks after the self-righteous proclamation of mea culpa in the Mossadeq affair, Obama is finding out that life is considerably more complex. Any outright support of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's supporters will be presented as 1950s-style subversion. And while we're talking about the 1950s, let's remember that encouraging an uprising without a plan to help it out results in a catastrophic massacre, like the Soviets' quashing of the revolt in Hungary.
The promise of nonintervention was also discussed in a recent speech by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. It sounded like a strange Persian translation of the Gettysburg Address: This is an Iranian issue, to be decided in Iran, by the Iranian people.
Gates made the speech to commanders of the Gulf's Arab armies, who were meeting in Washington. He mused about his service in the CIA and National Security Council; for example, when the Reagan administration defended Gulf tanker traffic from Iranian attacks during the Iran-Iraq War. Recently declassified documents, bearing Reagan's signature, instructed the American defense and intelligence corps to spare no effort to prevent Saddam Hussein's defeat by Khomeini.
The past was used as a pedestal for Gates to take an unequivocal stance on Iran's future: A resounding no to nuclear proliferation and upsetting the Gulf's balance of power. The problem is that the initiative may well be stifled by Iran's tough rulers, who operate the Revolutionary Guard's naval forces (completely separate from the regular navy), and are busy plotting sabotage against coastal targets.
The stabilization of the Iranian government signals an escalation in the Gulf, and also a stepping-up of the Arab-American alliance against Iran. Israel, however, may still be left to face the Iranian nuclear threat on its own - the calculations in Bahrain, Riyadh and Washington are different from those in Jerusalem, after all. Ahmadinejad and Obama will not save Israel from making a fateful choice.
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