The Parallax Brief

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Unrepentant Subjectivity on Economics, Politics, Defence, Foreign Policy, and Russia

Iran Satellite Launch no Barrier to Soft Power

Dealing with the Middle East is clearly President Obama’s most pressing foreign policy task, and the politics and complexities of the region also make it by far his most exacting. Obama must deal with the region as a whole, yet within the Middle East pot, he is faced with a broth of caustic, distinct, and often mutually repulsive ingredients seemingly always at boiling point.

It is the process of dealing with these ingredients individually while simultaneously managing the effects of doing so on the others that has made the Middle Eastern foreign policy soup hitherto indigestible for US presidents.

And Iran just made Obama’s task more difficult by launching its first homemade satellite into space.

If true, this is an extremely alarming development, as the technology for putting a satellite into orbit is directly adaptable the process of putting a warhead into orbit as part of an ICBM’s flight path. Developing ‘staged’ rockets is vital if Iran’s military is to extend the range of Iran’s Shahab missiles, which are currently limited to 1200 miles (2000km).

The news does nothing to aid Obama’s quest to strike a more conciliatory tone with the Muslim state. Demonstrating an understanding of the technology that could in theory allow it to target countries beyond its backyard provides ammunition to those who wish to see military action against Iran, or at the very least a continuation of the failed Bush policy of hard-line isolation and sanctions.

However, hope remains for those of us who believe that the Bush-era diplomatic freeze with Iran was egregious and monstrously counter-productive. First, on the domestic front, Obama has a tremendous mandate so soon after his election and following the deeply unpopular, ineffectual, and mostly incompetent Bush administration. In fact, pressure is on Obama to unveil policies which contrast to those of his predecessor.

Second, Obama’s worldwide popularity makes it far more difficult for foreign leaders to criticize him personally, or blame America for their woes, than was the case with the widely reviled Bush. Iran may already be struggling in the face of a more conciliatory tone.

Third, the administration’s efforts toward Iraq withdrawal are likely to garner further good-will in the Middle East, putting a quid pro quo back on the table, and, in combination with point two, making public opinion less of a problem for Middle Eastern countries dealing with America.

Finally, perhaps Iran could change soon, too. Iran’s economy is in a parlous state, and there is reason to believe that the Ahmadinejad belligerent, hard-line regime is not popular. Given elections in June, Obama and his team could be soon faced with a more moderate Iranian leader, such as Mohammad Khatami.

While it would be fatuous to assume the ayatollahs will decide to walk to road to Damascus and discover the wonders of capitalism and Jesus, there is reason to believe that the time is ripe for the US, led by Obama and Clinton, to gain traction with Iran for the first time in a decade.

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