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Home arrow Political science arrow Cycles in US Foreign Policy since the Cold War

The Middle East, Russia, and Iran

While the fledgling Obama presidency was laying the foundation for a comprehensive battle plan for Afghanistan, it reached out to the Muslim world just five months into office. Traveling to Egypt and speaking at Cairo University, Barack Obama extended an olive branch to the Islamic world for reconciliation with the West. Even though he mentioned American themes of promoting democracy, religious freedom, and women’s rights in the Middle East, he noted failings in America’s pursuit of its own ideals, particularly in Iraq. He made the point that the United States desired to withdraw its military presence from Iraq and then Afghanistan, once it was assured that the latter country no longer harbored terrorists bent on killing Americans. In a line that drew applause, he avowed: “America is not—and never will be—at war with Islam.” Obama tapped into a popular regional cause when he labeled the plight of the Palestinians as “intolerable” after 60 years of statelessness and “dislocation.” The president stated that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” in West Bank areas. Despite directing his bluntest comments at Israel, the president made it clear that America shared an “unbreakable” bond with the Jewish state.18

To his critics, President Obama’s moral equivalence detracted from America’s resounding message of liberty and democracy in the Middle East.19 His speech set a different tone toward the Middle East from other presidents. It proved to be a harbinger of strained relations with Israel, of America’s withdrawal first from Iraq and then largely from Afghanistan, and of Washington’s eager engagement of Iran in the years to come. At a news conference in April 2010, the president advanced the notion that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute was “a vital national security interest of the United States,” more than implying that this Middle East standoff deepened the hostile environment in the region for America.20 These and other such statements became the thin end of an ever-widening wedge that divided Barack Obama and his counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, over the US president’s tenure.

The Obama administration initiated the opening of a new chapter with Russia to restore the harmony of the early 1990s. Dubbed the “reset,” this overture envisioned turning back bilateral relations to before they soured under the Clinton administration. The Kremlin especially resented the Clinton-initiated Kosovo bombing and the NATO expansion into the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Albania. The Bush administration raised Russian fears and resentment in 2002 when it abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Treaty with Moscow, because it felt the 1972 treaty restricted American missile defense of European allies from Iran. Five years later, the Bush White House announced plans to install ten anti-missile interceptors in Poland and a battle-management system in the Czech Republic to counter Iranian long-range missiles. The Russians perceived these installations as a direct threat to their ICBMs, which served as a strategic deterrent against the United States.21 For its part, Moscow considered its 2008 military actions against Georgia as retribution for America’s wrongs. By that date, the Kremlin’s hectoring of Ukraine and Georgia were harbingers of its neo-imperialist impulses.22

Taking Kremlin grievances into account, President Obama displayed an eagerness for a rapprochement with Russia. He dispatched Robert Gates to Russia with a proposal for Russo-American collaboration on East European missile defense. Moscow rejected the defense secretary’s proposal unless the United States first scrapped elements of the antimissile system. Gates even suggested jointly operating a missile facility on Russian territory.23 Moscow’s opposition led the United States to scrub the Bush missile strategy and replace it with a naval anti-missile defense. These short-range, ship-based interceptors posed no threat to Russia’s ICBMs. This revamped defensive program also called for a future installation of land-based missiles in Romania and Poland, plus a radar coordination facility in Turkey. Ankara declared in late 2011 that it was going forward with the planned radar system as part of the multilayered NATO shield against Iran’s escalating nuclear and missile dangers.24 The administration’s concessions laid the foundation for a Russian-American strategic weapons agreement later and for Moscow’s backing economic sanctions against Iran.

The new Washington administration attained one of its short-term goals with Moscow. It revived nuclear arms-control negotiations with Russia and hammered out an agreement, which was signed by President Obama and President Dimiti Medvedev in the majestic gilded hall of the Prague Castle in the Czech Republic’s capital city on April 8, 2010. The New START treaty reduced by a proclaimed 30 percent the number of nuclear warheads and launchers from previous the START, which George H.W. Bush entered into with the Soviet Union.25 It had expired in December 2009. New START, after ratification by the US Senate and the Federal Assembly in Russia, went into force in 2011. It pared down the number of deployed warheads to 1500 from 2200.26 The Obama administration, nonetheless, rejected a request to remove US tactical nuclear weapons from Europe despite pressure from some NATO allies unless Russia reciprocated, something Moscow refused to entertain.27 To secure ratification of the New START treaty, the White House went on record supporting missile defense in a manner not previously stated and committed over $80 billion to modernizing the US nuclear arsenal.28

Accompanying the rollout of the new arms reduction treaty was the Obama administration’s “Nuclear Posture Review.” The Defense Department’s 50-page document proposed to address the post-Cold War threats posed by “by suicidal terrorist and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons.”29 It granted nonnuclear nations a form of immunity from any atomic-weapons retaliation from the United States. But “outliers” (the Obama administration’s term for rogue states), such as Iran and North Korea, would not be de-targeted by the United States. Robert Gates, the defense secretary, elaborated at a press conference that the review contained “a message for Iran and North Korea.” Referring to the two so-called outliers, he added: “if you’re not going to play by the rules..., then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.”30 The ostensibly threatening nuclear declaration served as a stepping-stone to an agreement with Iran.

The Islamic Republic of Iran figured prominently in Barack Obama’s thinking from his first summer in the White House, when large Iranian crowds took to the streets to protest what they regarded as a fraudulent reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on June 12. Rather than loudly condemning the Iranian government’s harsh crackdown on demonstrators, journalists, and democracy champions, Washington adopted a near-silent stance, opening itself to charges of breaking faith with freedom advocates. Unlike the EU or both the US Senate and House, which passed nonbinding resolutions condemning Tehran’s bloody suppression of its opponents in the urban thoroughfares, the Obama government held back from venting condemnatory statements. Its spokesmen argued that full-throated backing of the protestors would play into the hands of the Iranian regime, which would accuse them of being American puppets.31

Be that as it may, Obama’s handling evinced a penchant for stagesetting for future nuclear talks with Iran. American foreign policy mandarins looked beyond democracy rioters in the city squares to a time when Iranian and US diplomats would sit down to discuss Iran’s nuclear weapons programs. They cynically calculated that the Ahmadinejad regime would prevail over the public demonstrations.32 Their bet proved sound and subsequently they engaged Iran on nuclear and other issues. In late September, the administration accepted Tehran’s offer to hold direct talks between the two parties, together with China, Britain, France, Germany, and Russia. So began, the meetings that in time led to the sustained P5 plus 1 (P5+1) negotiations on Iranian nuclear activities, which loomed large during Obama’s second term. Prior to American-Iranian rapprochement, Washington’s pursuit of Iran cracked open a rift with Israel that prevailed to the end of Obama’s second term.

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