The lack of good options has generally kept trans-pacific differences regarding how to respond to Iran’s nuclear activities limited. Asian governments, including China and Russia, have generally adhered to some variant of a “two-track” policy that balances diplomacy with sanctions. Of course, as President Obama pointed out earlier, despite U.S. and other international efforts to negotiate a compromise, “It may be that their ideological commitment to nuclear weapons is such that they’re not making a simple cost-benefit analysis on this issue.”
The nature of the Iranian political system amplifies this problem. The intra-elite splits that have intensified since the disputed 2009 presidential election have complicated reconciliation efforts between Washington and Tehran. An unfortunate dynamic has arisen. Whenever Iranian negotiators have seemed to support a compromise deal regarding their nuclear policies or other activities, reformers as well as nationalists have attacked them for selling out Iran’s interests. An enduring U.S.-Iran reconciliation remains improbable until new political leaders emerge in Iran who enjoy genuine popular support and are capable of envisaging a genuine improvement in relations with the United States.
The Obama administration is striving to stabilize Afghanistan by the time it withdraws most U.S. combat troops, but whether it can realize such an achievement remains uncertain. At their meetings in Washington last month, Presidents Obama and Karzai agreed to accelerate the U.S. military withdrawal timetable. Obama justified the decision by citing the declared success of the U.S. military surge in Afghanistan in defeating al-Qaeda, weakening the Taliban, and building up the Afghan security forces. Obama later announced in his State of the Union address that 34,000 U.S. troops would be withdrawn over the next year, ahead of all combat troops being out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Obama also discussed the nature of the post-2014 Afghan-U.S. military cooperation, but the two governments provided few details regarding how they planned to implement the Strategic Partnership that they signed last year in Kabul. Nor did the Afghan-U.S. discussions resolve uncertainties concerning how Afghanistan would ensure the holding of free and fair presidential elections in 2014, or achieve progress in the peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and their foreign sponsors in Pakistan.
In this regard, Pakistan might see, for the first time in its history, an elected civilian government transfer power to another team of elected civilians. Unfortunately, this spring’s national elections could bring to power politicians less supportive to U.S. interests than the current leaders, who have struggled to sustain minimum cooperation with the U.S. war on terror, especially the use of drone strikes, in the face of their citizens’growing hostility towards the United States. Whoever wins this year’s ballot will find it hard to rein in the elements within the Pakistani intelligence services that support the Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan and India. And the temptation will always exist in Islamabad to seek to squeeze Washington by suspending the Pentagon’s use of the ground supply lines through Pakistani territory that convey goods to the NATO troops in Afghanistan.
The administration’s Russian Reset actually helped NATO survive the year-long ban that Islamabad imposed for most of 2011, as the Pentagon was able to transport defense supplies through Russia and its Central Asian allies using the Northern Distribution Network that has been constructed during the Obama administration. Despite this promising improvement, Russian-U.S. relations remain strained over U.S. ballistic missile defense plans, while Washington has been unable to secure all the help it wants from Moscow regarding Iran. The Russian government’s image among Americans has been deteriorating sharply since Putin’s return to the presidency, with the Pussy Riot scandal, ban on Americans adopting Russian orphans, and government crackdown on civil liberties. Russia’s weakening economy has decreased its global influence, including in Washington. On the other hand, Moscow was angered by the U.S. Congress passing, and President Obama signing, a new law that prohibits Russian officials thought to be involved in the death of Sergei Magnitsky from traveling to the U.S. or accessing its banking system. The Russian parliament responded by passing a self-defeating measure limiting Americans’ ability to adopt Russian orphans.