Sunday, June 21, 2009

"The policy we were longing for from America"

By Jennifer Cupp

The United States and the Arab world have a historic opportunity to enter into a new era of relations, said Ahmed Maher, the former Egyptian Foreign Minister, at a discussion on the Middle East and globalization on Saturday in Cairo.

The U.S. ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, joined Maher in his comments about the Obama administration’s emerging policy toward the Middle East. They spoke as part of a the Cairo Global Leadership Conference on globalization and the Middle East, hosted by Egypt’s International Economic Forum and Yale World Fellows Program.

Already, Obama’s response to the elections in Iran and the agenda he put forth in his recent speech in Cairo have given many Arabs hope for a new dialogue between the United States and countries in the Middle East, Maher said.

The Bush administration refused to meet with Iranian leaders until they met certain conditions. Under this administration, U.S. tensions with Iran escalated. The Obama administration is taking a different approach, with Obama saying even early on that he would be open to meeting with Iranian leaders to discuss tensions between Iran and America. The disputed presidential election in Iran hasn’t changed this.

The election controversy is an internal Iranian debate, Scobey. To help keep it that way, the United States has refrained from interfering, she said. “We don’t want it to become about the United States and its problems with Iran,” she said.

Regardless of the outcome, the United States will remain open to dialogue with Iran to resolve tension between the two countries in a peaceful manner, Scobey said. This isn’t a major switch from the Bush administration’s policy toward the Middle East, but the way of talking about it has changed. Obama’s acknowledgement and acceptance of the autonomous sovereignty of foreign countries is part of this change, Maher said.

Maher praised Obama’s decision to not confront Iran but enter into dialogue with the country. “This is what makes us respect him,” he said. “This is the policy we were longing for from America.”

Part of seeking peace in the region still includes addressing the same issues the Bush administration did and promoting the expansion of democratic options, Scobey said. Obama outlined these issues and his plans to start resolving them in his speech in Cairo. Topping the list were the problems of the Arab-Israel conflict, nuclear aspirations, and violent extremism.

But it isn’t only the United States’ responsibility to see the agenda for resolution through to completion, Maher said. The Arab world needs unity among its countries, so do the Palestinians, he said.

The Arab world, along with Americans, has high hopes for Obama, beginning with promises he made during the U.S. election and now those in his Cairo speech.

Maher said that Arabs are now looking for concrete actions from the United States. “We expect that when the president speaks he will follow words with actions,” he said.

Scobey said Obama has made it clear that America will take action and U.S. foreign policy is not an agenda based solely on dialogue.

Obama’s approach to Iran and the Middle East has the potential to forge a new future for the region and its relationship with the United States. Already, talk of attacking Iran has declined immensely, Maher said. Instead, it’s all about dialogue.

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