The real issues

President Barack Obama with his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha before making his victory speech after last night’s election results.

WASHINGTON – Having defeated Republican Mitt Romney at home, Barack Obama has no shortage of adversaries to grapple with abroad, including the governments of Iran, Syria and possibly China.

The Democratic president’s re-election ensures continuity in US foreign policy but leaves open questions such as whether diplomacy can constrain Iran’s nuclear programme or whether Israel or the United States might resort to air strikes.

Nor is it obvious whether Obama will be able to sustain his refusal so far to try to tip the scales in Syria’s civil war by allowing US arms to flow to the rebels seeking to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

If events permit, US foreign policy analysts said Obama will continue his “pivot” to Asia, seeking to reorient US policy to take advantage of the projected growth in such nations as China and India and gradually withdraw from the Middle East.

However, both Iran, which the United States and its allies suspect of developing nuclear weapons, and Syria, where a car bomb killed and wounded dozens in the capital, Damascus, yesterday, will demand attention.

Martin Indyk, vice president of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution think tank, said 2013 could be a decisive year on Iran and suggested Obama’s wider commitment to nonproliferation could produce a “focused and assertive” policy.

“It’s going to be very high on the agenda,” Indyk said. “Preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons is a critical imperative for bolstering the nonproliferation regime.”

Iran denies US accusations that it seeks to develop nuclear weapons under cover of its civilian atomic program, saying its programme is for peaceful uses such as generating electricity and producing medical isotopes.

Talks between the major powers and Iran on a diplomatic solution are expected to resume – possibly as early as this month – but it is by no means clear whether one can be fashioned under which Iran might rein in its programme.

In an effort to drive Iran to compromise, the United States and the European Union have gone for the jugular, Iran’s oil exports, over the last year.

The United States has targeted foreign banks that deal with Iran’s central bank, the clearing house for its oil sales, and the European Union has ceased importing Iranian crude entirely.

The United States and Israel, which regards a nuclear-armed Iran as a threat to its existence, have also hinted at the possibility of military strikes against Iran.

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested that a decision on force could come by next spring.

Tehran’s UN mission responded by saying Iran has the means and right to retaliate with full force against any attack. (Reuters)

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