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El País , Spain

The United States,
Desire and Reality

By Javier Solana

Translated By Talisa Anderson

14 December 2012

Edited by Kyrstie Lane

Spain - El País - Original Article (Spanish)

For Iran it will depend on whether Obama continues to be mired in the Middle East or chooses to focus on the Pacific.

The Pacific or the Middle East: That is the question. While the rest of the world has breathed a sigh of relief and greeted Obama's re-election with optimism, two geopolitical areas demand the attention of the United States. One represents the future and the other represents the past. The first is the Pacific, protagonist of an electoral campaign marked by references to the ascension of China. The second has kept the United States bogged down in recent decades: a Middle East under the eternal conflict between Israel and Palestine, the instability in Iraq, the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war and the Iranian crisis.

If the crisis in Iran erupts, the first scenario would lose its status as the foreign policy priority of the United States. If it is resolved in a negotiated settlement, the second scenario will be relegated. The question, therefore, is whether the United States will be dragged into another war in the region, which it no longer depends on for energy.

The revolution of unconventional hydrocarbons, which, according to predictions, will make the United States the major energy power of the world, is an event of enormous global repercussions. According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency, it is predicted that in 2020 the United States will be the main global producer of oil and gas. This energy self-sufficiency is the perfect excuse to gradually withdraw from the Middle East. Liberated from its energy dependency, the country can focus on the Pacific.

Despite the fact that the stability of the price of oil and the alliance with Israel have made it impossible to disengage completely from the Middle East, the United States has its eyes set on Asia. Hillary Clinton announced the strategic reorientation of United States foreign policy toward this continent, which is the setting that the U.S. judges to be key for the future. Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia have been the top three destinations for Obama after his re-election. It is a decision that will not make China particularly happy, given the fact that the three nations are members of ASEAN.

The region is experiencing enormous economic growth, but strong nationalist tendencies require that it commit to creating regional security structures and reinforcing the structures of economic integration. There is a principle that must be overcome between the United States and China: strategic distrust, a term used by Kenneth Lieberthal and Wang Jisi in a publication by the Brookings Institution. The trust strategy between the two major powers of the century is fundamental for the smooth functioning of the international system. A step forward would be cooperation with Beijing to resolve the problems of the Middle East, from which China will import three fourths of the total oil that will be consumed in 2020.

After next year, and after the Israeli elections of early 2013, Iran will return to being a top priority of the American presidential agenda. A military intervention in Iran, which will hold elections in June 2013, would create a dramatic situation of regional and global instability. In the Arab world, Russia and China would be obliged to take sides, straining global relations between distinct poles of power and also straining the Pacific.

But it is not only Iran: The volatile situation in the Middle East demands more urgent solutions. The recent clashes in Gaza highlight the importance of the peace process. In turn, the Syrian civil war will involve a growing number of regional actors and is increasingly presented as a trial of war between Sunni Muslims – represented by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies, Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood – and Shiite Muslims – Iran and Hezbollah – for regional domination.

Iran senses that the United States prefers to avoid military intervention. The fatigue of more than a decade of wars with a very high economic and human cost suggests that the United States prefers to bet on the diplomatic route rather than the route of bombs. A recent survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, reviewed by Roger Cohen in The New York Times, showed that 67 percent of Americans believe that the Iraq war was not worth it. 69 percent of Americans believe the United States is no safer from terrorism as a result of the war in Afghanistan, and 71 percent say the Iraq experience should make the U.S. more cautious about using force. It does not seem, therefore, that the public is willing to once again invest millions of dollars in an adventure that leads to a dead end. The Iranian government, meanwhile, appears increasingly cornered by the economic sanctions that are starting to wreak domestic havoc. Both can understand that their best bet, today, is to opt for negotiation.

The peaceful solution of the Iranian issue is what will facilitate the United States' change of direction toward Asia. Another Middle Eastern conflict, however, will poison and adulterate relations in that part of the world. It would be the worst of all options.



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