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Obama urged to be a hawk on Iran

Barack Obama should beef up the US' military presence in the Gulf with additional aircraft battle groups, minesweepers and missile defence batteries, says report.

On his first day in the White House Barack Obama should beef up the United States' military presence in the Gulf with additional aircraft battle groups, minesweepers and missile defence batteries. He should also expand strategic partnerships with countries north of Iran such as Azerbaijan and Georgia "in order to maintain operational pressure" on the Islamic Republic "from all directions".

The advice comes from a report written with the co-operation of Dennis Ross, who is possibly the president-elect's most influential adviser on the Middle East. The little-noticed report on "meeting the challenge" of Iran's nuclear ambitions was published in September by the so-called Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank. Its advice suggested that if muscular diplomacy failed, the US would then be primed for military action "as a last resort". A US bombing campaign could be conducted without a fully-fledged invasion, although special forces would be needed on the ground in Iran. Troops and material could also be brought into the region "under the cover of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, thus maintaining a degree of strategic and tactical surprise".

There is no guarantee, of course, that Mr Obama will heed such hawkish counsel, which is likely to be resisted by others within his administration. But it is a sobering thought for Iranians who hoped Mr Obama's election victory would spur a breakthrough in relations between the US and Iran that aides in his inner sanctum are urging such measures. "If he is responsible for making Iran policy in the Obama administration, I'd be concerned," said Gary Sick, an Iran analyst at Columbia University, who served on the National Security Council under three US presidents. "His position is done in the name of diplomacy, but the process makes it almost impossible to have negotiations and lays the groundwork for military action," he said.

Iranians are already tempering their expectations of Mr Obama, whose first remarks on the Islamic Republic after his election triumph served notice that he would be no pushover. Instead of responding to an unprecedented message of congratulations from his hardline Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Mr Obama declared: "Iran's development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable. We have to mount an international effort to prevent that happening." Iran vehemently denies its nuclear programme has a military component.

Iranian commentators also pointed out that one of Mr Obama's first actions was to appoint as his chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who has strong ties to Israel. Mr Ross, however, could prove more influential in terms of Middle East policy. He is tipped to be given a senior post in Mr Obama's state department or National Security Council. Supporters of Mr Ross, who was the main Middle East mediator for Bill Clinton, the former US president, say he will bring invaluable experience to the White House. But the Palestinians regarded Mr Ross as pro-Israeli in peace talks.

He is a co-founder and consultant at the Washington Institute of Near East Affairs, a think tank founded by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which is regarded as Israel's most influential lobby group in the US. Press TV, Iran's English-language satellite television channel, described Mr Ross as a "notorious Israel-Firster". Yet some Iranian politicians remain confident that change could happen. "I think that Obama will have no option but to determine a new approach to domestic and foreign policy in the United States following the failed policies of President George Bush," said Ala'edin Borujerdi, a senior parliamentarian.

Mr Obama's choice of Joe Biden as vice president was encouraging, he added. Mr Biden, like the president-elect, has in the past urged unconditional dialogue with Iran. Assuming Mr Obama spurns Mr Ross's advice, many analysts say he will undertake only cautious and limited engagement with Tehran until Iranian presidential elections in June. Washington's message to Iranian voters will be that there is a better chance of rapprochement if they elect a moderate, such as the charismatic former president, Mohammad Khatami, who has yet to declare his candidacy.

A major overture from the US before then could boost the popularity of Mr Ahmadinejad. The Bipartisan Policy Center report to which Mr Ross put his name recommends that sanctions should be tightened against Iran before and during any rapprochement. Iranian compliance would be rewarded by the calibrated lifting of sanctions together with security guarantees and assurances serving as further incentives. But the report advises against entering into negotiations unless Iran first suspends uranium enrichment - a condition set by the Bush administration which Tehran has steadfastly rejected.

Negotiations also should have tight deadlines so that Iran does not try to "run out the clock". If Tehran remains unbending the US should consider blockading Iran's imports of gasoline on which it relies because it lacks sufficient refining capacity to meet high domestic demand. The "next President then would want to consider extending the blockade to Iran's oil exports, thus cutting off the source of 80 per cent of the government's revenue", the report recommends. Its writers accept this "would likely be the last sanction possible prior to an escalation into military action".

mtheodoulou@thenational.ae

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