Simon Tisdall, Guardian, 5 Mar 2009
The US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s quasi-regal progress through the Middle East this week seems to have been too much for Iran’s Supreme Leader to bear. Speaking publicly about the new US administration for the first time since Barack Obama took power, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was by turns angry and dismissive.
“Even the new American president, who came to office with the slogan of bringing change in the policies of the Bush administration, avows unconditional commitment to Israel’s security,” Khamenei said. “This commitment means the defence of state terrorism, injustice, and oppression … of Palestinians.”
Obama was following the same “crooked ways” as his predecessor, he went on, and people such as the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, “who succumbed to surrender and compromise with the usurpers [Israel]” should by now have realised their mistake. Hamas-style resistance was the only way forward.
Khamenei’s rant should not be considered Iran’s final word on Washington’s so far non-specific offers of bilateral dialogue. Rather it reflects an uneasy realisation in Tehran that Obama and Clinton are in the process of launching a multi-pronged strategic offensive across the Middle East that directly challenges recent Iranian gains.
It is a truism that George Bush’s policies, especially the invasion of Iraq, greatly enhanced Iranian influence in the region. Now Obama appears intent on rolling back those advances even as he holds out the prospect of improved relations.
This week, after a phoney war dating from last November, the grand US-Iran battle for strategic control in the Middle East was joined. The visiting Clinton’s underlying message was simple: game on.
Speaking in Egypt at the beginning of the week, Clinton saidWashington’s top priority was achieving “a comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours and we will pursue it on many fronts”. But this objective is becoming inextricably intertwined with the more urgent aim of pegging back Iran.
Clinton’s announcement of $900m in aid to the Palestinians was carefully tied up with caveats that none of the money would go to, or be administered by, Iran’s Hamas “clients” in Gaza. Proposed additional US funding for training Palestinian Authority security forces, past and possible future adversaries of Hamas, is another indirect way of pushing back Iran.
By insisting that a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was “inescapable”, and criticising the latest Israeli land grab in Arab East Jerusalem, Clinton seemed to set herself at odds with Israel’s prime minister-designate, Binyamin Netanyahu. But on the biggest security issue facing Israel – Iran – there is no fundamental difference of opinion, just a (possibly temporary) difference in approach.
According to foreign policy expert Scott Lucas, writing on the Enduring America website, Washington may even be anticipating that, in due course, “Netanyahu will insist on a withdrawal from engagement with Iran if there is to be an [Israeli] engagement with the Palestinian Authority and the two-state process … Indeed, he may already have made that clear to the Americans”.
Washington’s decision to send senior US envoys to Damascus after a four-year rift has opened another anti-Tehran front. This move, apparently orchestrated with Saudi Arabia, may augur resumed Israeli-Syrian peace talks, part of Clinton’s “many front” approach. But equally it affords an opportunity to weaken Syria’s alliance with Iran – and with Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.
Speaking of which, Britain’s unexpected volte-face this week in deciding to pursue talks with Hezbollah‘s political wing looks like another concerted attempt to undermine Tehran’s influence. It’s unlikely this hyper-sensitive initiative was undertaken without prior discussion with, and approval from Washington. If it flies, the US may talk, too.
Clinton’s busy week isn’t finished yet. Tomorrow in Geneva, she will seek firmer Russian support for western efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear programme when she meets Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov.
This move follows closely on a letter sent by Obama to Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, reportedly linking a tougher, joint US-Russia approach to Iran to the possible scrapping of US plans to station defensive missiles in eastern Europe (which Russia abhors).
Closer co-operation with Moscow on the Middle East peace process, Afghanistan and strategic arms reductions is also on the Geneva agenda. But vitally important though these issues are, the discussion always seems to come back to Iran.
This was the week when Iran emerged as the central front in Obama’s fast-evolving Middle East policy – and he is beginning to deploy his diplomatic forces with the audacity of hope and not a little cunning. Little wonder Ayatollah Khamenei sounded a bit rattled.