The most important point in Barack Obama’s interview with Al-Arabiya televison — the first major interview he has granted anywhere, since he became President — comes towards the very end of the encounter, and has been virtually unmentioned in reports on the celebrated event:

Q: Will the United States ever live with a nuclear Iran? And if not, how far are you going in the direction of preventing it?

THE PRESIDENT: You know, I said during the campaign that it is very important for us to make sure that we are using all the tools of U.S. power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.

Now, the Iranian people are a great people, and Persian civilization is a great civilization. Iran has acted in ways that’s not conducive to peace and prosperity in the region: their threats against Israel; their pursuit of a nuclear weapon which could potentially set off an arms race in the region that would make everybody less safe; their support of terrorist organizations in the past — none of these things have been helpful.

But I do think that it is important for us to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress. And we will over the next several months be laying out our general framework and approach. And as I said during my inauguration speech, if countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.

So, the answer to the journalist’s question, is effectively “yes” — the US would live with a nuclear Iran under Obama, and work things out from there. And “…acted in ways that’s not conducive to peace…” is not exactly a ringing condemnation in “axis of evil” terms, and nor did Obama make any mention of the loopy and noxious holocaust denial/scepticism that Iran’s current leadership go in for. That Obama might consider a strike against Iran at some point is of course a real possibility — but it is worth considering that he thinks that Israel, with dozens of nuclear weapons of its own, can look after itself.

Most importantly, what he does here and elsewhere through the interview is to uncouple US/Middle East/Central Asia policy from any overarching narrative of freedom vs. tyranny, and reduce it to a more mundane realpolitik.

“Israel is a US ally,” he notes, and “its security remains paramount” — but there’s none of the “historically wronged people seeking refuge blah blah blah”. And almost as soon as he’s payed the obeisances, he’s talking about the way in which the whole region has to be considered as a piece.

This marks a real shift, as does Obama’s observation that, ultimately, the Isarelis and Palestinians have to sort things out for themselves. So too does the despatch of George Mitchell as special Middle East envoy. Mitchell is in many ways a corporate Democratic creature, a former friend of Big Tobacco, but he won respect from Sinn Fein/IRA in the Northern Ireland peace process as a plain dealer. Most importantly, he’s half-Arab, his mother emigrating from Lebanon at the age of 18. It is inconceivable that the Bush regime would send such a person to parlay with Israel.

Together with Obama’s decision to call Palestinian Territories head Abbas before he called Olmert, it is one of a series of small but decisive messages that Obama is sending to the Israelis that, whatever needs to be said for domestic American consumption, a half-Kenyan ex-Chicago radical knows a thing or two about colonial projects. As Uri Avnery notes, Obama’s remark during the inauguration about those “on the wrong side of history” applies as well or better to Israel as to the violent Muslim sects who are in a sense its mirror image.

Of course one wouldn’t want to do cartwheels just yet. Along with all this hoopla, Obama has appointed Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, his blood-tracked footprints going all the way from Vietnam to the Balkans by way of East Timor. But Obama has never made any secret of Afghanistan being a war he wants to win — as much for a more radical re-orientation of regional policy in general. We watch with interest…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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