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President Obama Bets Big On Middle East Diplomacy

<!--[if gte mso 9]><xml> <o:OfficeDocumentSettings>  <o:AllowPNG/> </o:OfficeDocumentSettings></xml><![endif]--> President Obama, speaking on Saturday night, said the interim deal on Iran's nuclear program is an important first step. The Obama administration is currently working on several major initiatives in the Middle East.
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President Obama, speaking on Saturday night, said the interim deal on Iran's nuclear program is an important first step. The Obama administration is currently working on several major initiatives in the Middle East.

The track record for Middle East diplomacy is pretty dismal, yet this is where President Obama is playing all his important diplomatic cards.

With the interim deal on Iran's nuclear program, the president is now engaged in his fifth major diplomatic initiative in five contiguous countries stretching from Afghanistan in the east to Israel in the west.

Obama has spoken frequently about focusing more U.S. attention on Asia, but time and again, he is drawn back to the Middle East. Overall, these efforts are still playing out, and it's too early to judge success or failure. But after nearly five years in office, the president's legacy on foreign policy will likely be determined by what ultimately happens in this volatile swath of territory.

The Iranian deal announced in Geneva early Sunday effectively freezes Iran's nuclear program. Now comes the bigger challenge of negotiating a permanent agreement over the next six months that locks into place safeguards against an Iranian nuclear weapon.

This is just one of several diplomatic developments over the past few days that included news on the future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here's a running scorecard on the president's diplomatic moves:

Iran: Depending on who's talking, the Iranian deal represents the most important breakthrough with the Islamic republic in the past decade, if not since the 1979 Iranian revolution — or it's a worthless piece of paper.

Many Iranians celebrated the announcement. Is that because they are desperate to forge better links with the international community, or because Iran feels it got such a good deal? Opinions vary.

For years, talks on Iran's nuclear program took place with little fanfare and rarely caused a ripple. Now they will face intense media scrutiny, which always makes life more difficult for diplomats.

The president is already taking heat from Republicans, while rivals of Iran, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, also oppose the deal. The debate will only intensify as the U.S. and other world powers try to work out a permanent deal.

Afghanistan: A huge gathering of Afghan elders and community leaders approved a plan Sunday that would allow the U.S. to keep a limited military force in Afghanistan after American combat forces are withdrawn next year.

The gathering, known as a Loya Jirga, also said that President Hamid Karzai should act now.

"President Karzai should promise us that he is going to sign the agreement soon," said Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, the man chairing the assembly. "It's for our good."

But the unpredictable Karzai, who will step down following a presidential election next spring, is continuing to waffle.

"If the U.S. brings us peace, we will sign the agreement," Karzai said at the gathering, adding that more time was needed to negotiate revisions.

The Afghan army is still a work in progress, and the U.S. military fears that a resurgent Taliban will further destabilize the country without U.S. training and assistance, which would also include counterterrorism raids.

Syria: Obama was widely criticized for vacillating and then backing off a threat to strike militarily against Syria back in August. But Syria has agreed to dismantle its chemical weapons stockpiles, and though this process is in its early stages, Syria has been cooperating, according to U.N. weapons inspectors.

The deal is considered the one diplomatic success in a war that's more than 2 years old and has claimed more than 100,000 lives.

The United Nations announced Monday that peace talks are planned Jan. 22 in Geneva, but it's still not clear who will represent the fractured opposition.

At present, there's little reason for optimism. President Bashar Assad's forces have made some battlefield gains this year, but the war has largely settled into a stalemate.

The opposition insists that Assad leave as part of a negotiated peace, but the Syrian leader, whose bloody 13-year-rule follows a bloody 30-year-rule of his father, says this will not happen.

"We are not going to Geneva to hand over power," Syria's information minister, Omran al-Zoubi, said earlier this month. "President Bashar al-Assad will remain head of state."

Israel and the Palestinians: Secretary of State John Kerry's persistent efforts have the Israelis and Palestinians negotiating for the first time in years, but so far there's no sign of a breakthrough and the general atmosphere is deteriorating.

The Palestinians are frustrated by a lack of progress, and members of their negotiating team have quit.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made headlines mostly through his criticism of the deal on Iran's nuclear program.

"What was concluded in Geneva last night is not a historic agreement, it's a historic mistake," Netanyahu said Sunday.

Obama and Netanyahu have had a frosty relationship, and friction over Iran could spill over into the talks regarding the Palestinians.

Iraq: Before U.S. troops departed at the end of 2011, the Obama administration tried but failed to secure an agreement that would have allowed a small number of U.S. forces to stay to help assist and train the Iraqi military.

Critics say the administration waited too long to start the talks and couldn't overcome frictions that accumulated during the more than eight years with a large U.S. military footprint.

How much of an impact would a small U.S. force have had?

It's impossible to say with any certainty, but foreign policy analysts see this as a missed opportunity, and say it has motivated the Obama administration to nail down this type of agreement in Afghanistan well before the U.S. combat troops leave next year.

Iraq has stumbled over the past two years. At least 5,000 Iraqis have been killed in violence this year, and political rivalries appear to be only more entrenched.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Washington at the end of October asking the U.S. for helicopters and other military hardware, but no troops, to deal with the deteriorating security conditions.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.