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When it comes to Libya, Obama’s wariness is Iran’s gain

Analysts here in New Delhi, as everywhere, are consumed by the unfolding developments in the Middle East. There is confusion over what might happen next, and how developments will affect U.S. standing in the region. Many have concluded that Iran, simply by standing pat, has emerged the winner yet again. They take seriously the notion ...

ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images
ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images

Analysts here in New Delhi, as everywhere, are consumed by the unfolding developments in the Middle East. There is confusion over what might happen next, and how developments will affect U.S. standing in the region. Many have concluded that Iran, simply by standing pat, has emerged the winner yet again.

They take seriously the notion of a "Shia arc", first identified by Jordan's King Abdullah over a decade ago. They fear that even if the Saudis bail out Bahrain's chestnuts, the Shi'a on both sides of the causeway that links the two states will feel emboldened and empowered, and will provide Tehran still new opportunities to make mischief. They worry that Syria is the one presidential dynasty that looks secure, while Hezbollah's ascendancy in Lebanon adds to Iran's increasing footprint in the Mediterranean -- most recently underscored by the first deployment of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal since 1979. India retains decent ties with Iran -- the cultural and economic relationship goes back centuries, if not millennia--and there can be little doubt that what Indian analysts are asserting in New Delhi is what Iranian policy makers are concluding in Tehran. With the United States seen as poised to depart Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby both expanding and deepening the Shia arc, it is no wonder that the ayatollahs seem to be sitting pretty.

The Obama administration has done little to convey a different impression to the mullahs, much less to make them recalculate their strategic position in the region. The administration has not exactly been assertive in the face of the upheavals that are shaking the region. Its policies seem more the product of bureaucratic consensus, invariably conservative and risk-averse, than of real leadership, which calls for bold decision making. While it may perhaps be possible -- if one is exceedingly generous -- to excuse Washington for its inconsistent responses to the jasmine revolutions in Tunisia in Egypt, there is no excuse for the inaction that has marked its response to Qaddafi's brutality. It seems as if unless the United States can deploy troops on the ground to the Middle East, there is not much else it can do to influence events in the region.

Analysts here in New Delhi, as everywhere, are consumed by the unfolding developments in the Middle East. There is confusion over what might happen next, and how developments will affect U.S. standing in the region. Many have concluded that Iran, simply by standing pat, has emerged the winner yet again.

They take seriously the notion of a "Shia arc", first identified by Jordan’s King Abdullah over a decade ago. They fear that even if the Saudis bail out Bahrain’s chestnuts, the Shi’a on both sides of the causeway that links the two states will feel emboldened and empowered, and will provide Tehran still new opportunities to make mischief. They worry that Syria is the one presidential dynasty that looks secure, while Hezbollah’s ascendancy in Lebanon adds to Iran’s increasing footprint in the Mediterranean — most recently underscored by the first deployment of Iranian warships through the Suez Canal since 1979. India retains decent ties with Iran — the cultural and economic relationship goes back centuries, if not millennia–and there can be little doubt that what Indian analysts are asserting in New Delhi is what Iranian policy makers are concluding in Tehran. With the United States seen as poised to depart Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby both expanding and deepening the Shia arc, it is no wonder that the ayatollahs seem to be sitting pretty.

The Obama administration has done little to convey a different impression to the mullahs, much less to make them recalculate their strategic position in the region. The administration has not exactly been assertive in the face of the upheavals that are shaking the region. Its policies seem more the product of bureaucratic consensus, invariably conservative and risk-averse, than of real leadership, which calls for bold decision making. While it may perhaps be possible — if one is exceedingly generous — to excuse Washington for its inconsistent responses to the jasmine revolutions in Tunisia in Egypt, there is no excuse for the inaction that has marked its response to Qaddafi’s brutality. It seems as if unless the United States can deploy troops on the ground to the Middle East, there is not much else it can do to influence events in the region.

As one senior U.S. diplomat recently put it to me, "we are increasingly being perceived in the region as the Soviets once were — all we have to offer are military solutions, nothing more." There appears to be no creativeness coming out of the Obama administration, only words. Yet as he fires on his own people, it is highly doubtful that Qaddafi worries terribly much about whether the United States, or for that matter, the European Union or the U.N. Security Council, "condemns" his actions or merely "deplores" them. Moreover, imposing sanctions will have little effect on the mad dictator, especially in the short term, when it is short term results that are urgently required.

In fact, the administration seems hamstrung even when it comes to military action. When Qaddafi’s stooges bombed a nightclub in Germany, the Reagan administration did not hesitate to launch an air strike in the Gulf of Sidra, targeting Qaddafi’s home in the process. Today, claiming that it might endanger Americans seeking to escape Libya, Washington hesitates to mount a no-fly zone that would both prevent Qaddafi’s ability to call on his air force and encourage further defections from all branches of his military. And it is not as if the U.S. Navy and Air Force’s resources are consumed by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The problem isn’t a shortage of aircraft; it is a lack of U.S. will.

So Qaddafi continues to kill his people, and the ayatollahs sit back, and watch, and wait. And, apart from issuing "strong statements," the Obama administration continues to do nothing to persuade them that they are wrong. No wonder Iran believes that time in the region is on its side.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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