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Will Obama change course?

CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that American foreign policy with regard to the Middle East has followed a certain pattern regardless of who is at the helm of the White House. And yet, many speculate how Obama’s agenda for the Middle East will be different from the past.
While Obama is expected to focus on domestic matters — chief among them will be fixing the economy — soon he will be looked at to see how he is going to handle Iran’s defiance. Time and again, President Barack Obama has made it perfectly clear that he was committed to the strategy of preventing Iran from going nuclear. Skeptics argue that he is yet to put his money where his mouth is. For instance, senior officials in the Israeli Cabinet criticize Obama’s approach toward Iran’s nuclear program and his focus on sanctions rather than a military option. To them, sanctions are nothing but a waste of time; eventually, they will not sway Iran from developing nuclear weapon.
Much ink has been spilled on the differences between Israel and the Obama administration with regard to the best way of handling the challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Though both countries seek to reverse the nuclear program of Iran, they do not share the same sense of urgency. And yet, some pundits went as far as to suggest that Obama will be a free agent in his second term and can afford to adopt a tougher approach toward Iran.
Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute, argues that “President Obama in his second term is likely early on to focus on a “grand deal” with Iran, testing the Iranians to see if there is a political settlement before he needs, probably by the end of the second quarter of 2013, to decide on other means — perhaps military means — to prevent the Iranians from achieving a nuclear weapons capability.”
But much of his policies will depend on Iran itself. If Iranian leaders fail to shift course and keep on with their enrichment of uranium, then Obama will be obliged to take additional moves to deliver on his promise of preventing Iran from going nuclear. On more than one occasion, Obama asserted that he was committed to the strategy of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons rather than containing Iran. And yet, many American strategists warn of a scenario where Iran can present the world with nuclear weapon as a fait accompli. Therefore, time is a critical factor for the American administration to fulfill its objective of prevention.
During the first term, Obama developed a strategy that was based on averting a military confrontation while putting unbearable pressure on Iranian leaders. So far sanctions have proved to be crippling for the Iranian economy and inflation is raging upward. Although President Obama made sure that Iranian leaders pay for their defiance, he also kept the door open for political settlement.
Hence, Iranian leaders’ ability to convince the international community to lift sanctions is contingent on their readiness for a political settlement that includes the nuclear program. Short of a full compliance with the requirements of the West with regard to the nuclear program, Iranian leaders will run the risk of subjecting their country to more sanctions and probably to other destructive options. It will remain to be seen if Iranian leaders change course.
That said, a second term President Obama may not be the only player in this game. Israel is poised to elect a new Knesset in the third week of January. If Netanyahu-Lieberman list wins elections — and this is highly likely — then the new Israel government will feel authorized by the Israeli public to act militarily against Iran. Not surprisingly, Israel will have to coordinate with Washington. But Obama will be compelled to move against Iran to avert an Israeli-Iranian military clash, a measure that will further complicate American strategic calculations in this volatile region.