Obama and the Arabs / An American Message

The public dialogue between U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was intended partly as an American monologue for Arab states, and particularly Iran.

Obama further clarified his Iran policy Monday when he explained that he does not intend to limit discussions with Tehran by setting a date in advance, and said he is willing to include Iran as a partner to diplomatic negotiations in the region.

The nuclear issue has taken on a softer tone, with Obama hinting an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a danger to the Islamic Republic itself, as it could lead to nuclear technology spreading to neighboring Arab states.

Obama "forgot" all about Syria, not mentioning it by name and only implicitly including it in the hoped-for peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

For now, these messages may calm the nerves of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak - who is scheduled to visit Washington next Tuesday - and Saudi Arabia, which is closely watching Obama's intentions on the Palestinian issue and Iran.

Egypt, which opposes military action against Iran, could have understood from Obama's remarks that when he speaks of "a range of steps" that may be taken against the mullahs, he does not mean military, but rather stricter sanctions. Likewise, the failure to mention Syria strengthens Egypt and Saudi Arabia as states supporting diplomatic steps in the region, forcing Syria to patiently wait its turn.

But it seems Iran was hardly impressed by Obama's conciliatory tone. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said yesterday the U.S. uses "weapons, money and organization" to weaken the Islamic Republic, and that Iranians must remain "alert." In a speech delivered in Iranian Kurdistan, Khamenei blamed Washington for "supporting terrorism" against Iran along its western border with Iraq.

Still, it seems Iran's current election campaign is what is influencing the official Iranian reaction to Obama's overtures.

"Do not allow those who would throw their hands up and surrender to enemies and defame the Iranian nation's prestige to get into office," he said of candidates perceived as pro-Western. The degree to which these remarks express Iran's real intentions will be gleaned once elections results are clear.

In Syria, the national newspapers emphasized the irrelevance of the Obama-Netanyahu meeting. "Obama reiterated his stances and Netanyahu didn't change his," wrote the official state newspaper Al-Ba'ath.

A day earlier, Syrian President Bashar Assad told Turkish journalists after Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Damascus that Syria is prepared to continue negotiations with Israel, but "would never sit at the negotiating table without Turkey."

Assad wondered aloud how the U.S. could request Syrian cooperation against terrorism while accusing it of supporting those same terror groups.

"If the meaning of terror is supporting resistance to Israel, then we support this resistance in Lebanon and Palestine, as it is the people's resistance," he said.

Now, all eyes are turning to Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo, where he is expected to present the key elements of his Middle East diplomatic plan, after completing a week of meetings with regional leaders.