During President Barack Obama’s first term, much was made of his administration’s “pivot” toward Asia. Given the increased strategic and economic significance of Asia to the United States, there are strong arguments for this rebalancing of focus. Nevertheless, the symbolism was lost on no one when, in late-November, Obama was forced to interrupt his trip to Asia to address the latest flare-up in violence between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. As Obama begins his second term, it is safe to assume that events in the Middle East will continue to occupy a considerable amount of bandwidth for the administration, even as Washington continues to manage a rebalancing of U.S. security investments.
Chief among the president’s Middle East agenda items will be Iran. While the Obama administration is working on a number of important issues in the region, its priority is the continued multilateral effort to achieve a negotiated end to possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, while also avoiding another costly and unnecessary military conflict. It is important, however, not to see the Iran issue in isolation, but to attempt to understand how other regional dynamics relate to and impact those efforts.
Before examining where the administration’s efforts on Iran are headed, it is worth stepping back for a moment to recall the situation that existed in the Middle East when Obama took office in January 2009. At the time, Iran was on a roll. It was, and remains, the single biggest strategic beneficiary of the U.S.-led Iraq war, which removed the biggest check on Iran’s power -- the regime of Saddam Hussein, with which Iran had fought a devastating eight-year war two decades earlier -- and helped install a new government in Baghdad in which Iran’s allies and former clients were strongly represented. Iran and its allies also profited considerably from the backlash across the Middle East against the U.S. occupation of Iraq, so much so that a 2008 poll of the region found Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad along with Iranian allies Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ranked as the region’s three most-admired leaders. This was largely because they were seen as the three whose opposition to the U.S. was strongest.