Monday, November 30, 2009

Help Wanted: Second Superpower Needed in Middle East

Iran's announcement that it plans a massive expansion of its nuclear program couldn't come at a worse time for the Obama administration. And President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad knows it.

Right on the heels of a pointed rebuke by the UN's nuclear watchdog agency over its nuclear program, Ahmadinejad announced that the country would build ten more reactors.

Obama is in trouble on all side with Iran. Conservatives are sure to say that Obama's efforts at rapprochement, were interpreted as weakness by Tehran. Meanwhile, the President has just ordered thousands of more troops into neighboring Afghanistan. And with Obama declaring that the war will continue until 2017, Iran knows that there is no chance of a credible military ultimatum from the administration.

Meanwhile another debt fueled holiday season puts the U.S. further in debt to China. Mounting American debt to China in this economic mess takes away American ability leverage China, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said recently. And without China even weak sanctions are impossible.

And Iran for its part has every reason to push for confrontation. With the regime still recovering from the shock of this summer's street uprising, Ahmadinejad is eager for anyway to redirect youthful anger on a shoving match with the West.

Obama has a very difficult line to walk on Iran. Making threats that he can't deliver on will make Iran's leaders even more eager to test new red lines, while giving the regime a greater mandate to crack down on dissent. But the further along that Iran gets on the potential of building a bomb, the harder it will be for anyone to reign them in.

The only real hope is that China can be convinced to assert its new role as a global superpower. In some ways China has the most to lose if the Middle East were to explode. If Israel were to launch strikes against Iran's reactors there would be a real possibility of regional war that would drive oil prices through the ceiling. A huge 1970's-style oil hike would throw the breaks on China's march to development.

China is in a unique position to offer Iran a stake in its future growth through trade agreements. China also can offer Iran a boost through helping to rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure - power generators, refineries, major highway systems.

Iran's stalled economy is one of the causes of the regime's instability and therefore a big part of the reason it needs to pick fights with America. The U.S. is in no position to do massive development projects in Iran, and neither nation's populations would like it much, anyway. But China could take this role, gaining stability in a critical region while building relations and leverage over a country with resources it needs.

Obama's best move in Iran might be to convince China it needs a piece of the action.

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