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Experts warn Barack Obama of 'hornet's nest' in Middle East

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12/02/2008 05:44 PM
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Experts warn Barack Obama of 'hornet's nest' in Middle East
Iran poses the greatest foreign policy challenge to the new president with Tehran on course to produce a nuclear bomb in the first year of an Obama administration, an unprecedented coalition of top think tanks warned yesterday.

Barack Obama must follow through on his promises of direct talks with Tehran and engage the Middle East region as a whole if he is to halt a looming crisis that could be revisited on the United States, the experts warned.

“Diplomacy is not guaranteed to work: it is not,” Richard Hass, one of the authors said. “But the other options – military action or living with an Iranian weapon are sufficiently unattractive for it to warrant serious commitment.”

The warnings came in a report called “Restoring the Balance,” a Middle East strategy for the incoming president drafted by the Council for Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution. Gary Samore, one of the authors, said the level of alarm over the “hornet’s nest” facing the new president in the Middle East, and the need for the swift adoption of previously untested approach, had inspired the unprecedented decision to write policy for him. “New administrations can choose new policies but they can’t choose next contexts,” Mr. Samore said. “This is what they inherit.”

The report paints a grim picture of the problems in the region but asserts that Mr. Obama is still in a strong position to exploit the positives. For the first time since the Iranian revolution, the leadership in Tehran has endorsed the idea of talking directly with Washington, as Mr. Obama has suggested. Falling oil prices also provide a new opportunity, restricting Iran’s means to sponsor terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah that act as its proxy in the region.

The new administration, however, must not fall into the trap of treating Iran in isolation to the rest of the Middle East, as the previous administration did, but deal with it as part of a larger jigsaw within the region.

Syria, which has shown tentative signs of a desire for better relations with the West, and has held negotiations with Israel through Turkish interlocutors, could be the idea test case for a new diplomatic approach. “Syria is a natural candidate for direct contact,” Mr. Hass said, as part of “a greater embrace of diplomacy with out preconditions” that should be extended to Iran.

The report laid blame for much of the crisis squarely with the Bush administration, whose war in Iraq fuelled Iran’s ascendancy as a regional power. But the authors warned against an “ABB” – anything but Bush – approach, urging Mr. Obama to build on some of the changes in direction over the last two years. “Change for sake of change is not a good idea,” Mr. Hass said. “Great powers have to be predictable.”

Mr. Obama must also team up with Arab countries for an urgent push to resolve the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, they said. Efforts by the Quartet – created “by mistake over vodkas at the Russian ambassador’s house,” according to Mr. Indyk, who was present, were necessarily limited because of the lack of Arab representation. “Time is not working in favour of a resolution,” he warned, noting the hardening of Israeli public opinion. “There is a real danger that support for a two-state resolution will falter.”

[link to www.timesonline.co.uk]