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Obama torn by conflicting allies

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TEL AVIV -- U.S. President Barack Obama has shown once again how difficult it is for him to navigate among four of his closest allies regarding Syria and Iran.

Israel and Saudi Arabia are pushing for a harsher reaction to Iran's continuing drive to acquire nuclear capability. At the same time, they are urging harsher steps against Syria.

In contrast, Turkey and Qatar argue that a military strike against Iran at this time would be "disastrous."

After a week of Israeli threats against Iran, Obama sought to lower tempers Sunday by calling for restraint and arguing in a TV interview that economic sanctions are working.

Obama also discreetly counselled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to "calm down" bellicose cabinet ministers. Netanyahu obliged, ordering his ministers to refrain from comments about Iran and its atomic programs.

The warlike rhetoric about Iran last week was "accidental" and totally unnecessary. Addressing the Herzliyah Conference, the most prestigious security and policy forum in Israel (attended by Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird), Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of General Staff Gen. Benny Gantz and Chief of Military Intelligence Gen. Aviv Kochavi reviewed the strategic challenges facing Israel in 2012.

The reviews were serious and wide-ranging. The four spoke of the Arab Spring and its implications for Israel. They addressed the massacres in Syria and predicted that Bashar Assad's days are "numbered." And they spoke about Iran and its dangers.

This last point received the widest media coverage. The consequent fuss was unintended and totally unnecessary. I attended the conference and heard U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro tell the forum that "the American and Israeli positions regarding Iran are fully co-ordinated."

He added that both countries believe the economic sanctions against Iran "are working," but added, "all options remain on the table."

It was exactly the same position pronounced Sunday by Obama.

It is obvious both the U.S. and Israel are giving preference, for now, to diplomacy and economic sanctions.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to separate the Iranian problem from that of Syria. The U.S. and its allies knew Russia and China would veto the Arab League draft resolution at the UN Security Council. It was clear that just as Russia does not want to lose its only base in the Arab world, neither does Iran. But Russia does want Assad to reform his regime, a message Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is carrying to Damascus today.

Iran, too, does not want to lose its Syrian base, with its extension to Lebanon via Hezbollah. But Iran is encountering financial difficulties in helping Syria. Iran sent a small contingent of its Revolutionary Guards to help suppress the rebellion in Damascus, but because of sanctions it lacks the financial means to help Syria quell the rebellion. In other words, Iran has begun to feel the effects of sanctions -- if not in Tehran, certainly in Damascus.

It is here where the U.S. is facing a dilemma. Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf countries want the U.S. to apply more economic pressure to Iran to reduce its ability to interfere in Syria. They argue that Assad's downfall will change the dynamics in the whole region.

Without Iran's presence in Damascus, its links to Lebanon's Hezbollah will become meaningless. Iran's huge investment in arms, training and financial support will go down the drain. This, in turn, would reduce Hezbollah's ability to dictate Lebanon's foreign policy and could return Lebanon to the western camp.

Turkey does not contradict this scenario and sees the benefits in ending Iran's presence in Damascus and Beirut. But Turkey also has economic interests to protect. Turkey does not want to lose its economic ties to Tehran and did not accept the loss of its economic ties to Syria. Turkey is now the headquarters of the Free Syrian Army and maintains a close relationship with the population in the Idlib region of northern Syria.

Turkey also realizes that the end of Iran's presence in Syria and Lebanon is likely to strengthen Israel's strategic position in the entire "Fertile Crescent" -- Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Such an outcome is unacceptable to Ankara, especially because of the unresolved conflict with Israel over the Mavi Marmara ship.

It is between these two conflicting trends that American diplomacy is now navigating.

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free

Press Middle East correspondent.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2012 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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