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Middle East will take top foreign policy billing in Obama's second term

In a move designed to benchmark the second term of his presidency, Barack Obama has agreed that his first international visit later this month will include Myanmar.

By deciding to visit this troubled country, which has only just emerged from years of military rule and was infamous for its breaches of human rights, Obama is sending the message that his administration will endorse any moves which will lead to a country seeking a "democratic transition". During the visit he will have discussions with President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, right.

The initiative also carries a wider significance as it sends a signal that much of Obama's early diplomacy in his second term will be aimed at Asia and the Pacific. Not only does this region represent a strong focus for US economic and business interests, it also provides some hope of success.

China will feature strongly in the State Department's activities as it will reinforce the strategic shift started during his first term, but care will also have to be taken to bolster key allies such as Japan and South Korea. The word from within the department is that the policy towards the Asia-China nexus will embrace "stability and continuity".

While this part of Obama's international agenda will produce a strong "good news" factor, other items are more intractable and potentially dangerous. Inevitably, the Middle East will take top billing and at the top of his list will be Iran followed closely by Syria, both long-running problems which need urgent attention.

Iran is the more dangerous. Despite a decade of diplomatic blandishments and crude military threats, it has refused to surrender its right to enrich uranium, arguing that its nuclear programme is peaceful and it has no intention of producing a nuclear weapon. There are signs from Tehran that the regime might be willing to reopen negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency now that the political situation has been resolved in the US, but Obama will also be under pressure to increase economic sanctions in the interests of being seen "to do something".

There is an outside chance that he will act unilaterally in an attempt to impose his own will on this long-running problem, but he will have to act quickly. Campaigning for Iran's own presidential elections begins next June and that will put a stop to any diplomatic initiatives. All the while Iranian scientists will be producing more supplies of enriched uranium and Israel will be champing at the bit to use military muscle to resolve the issue. Although it too is facing elections, it is difficult to believe that Israel will stand by and allow the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran.

There are links between this problem and neighbouring Syria. Both are longstanding allies, being of the Shia faith, and President Bashar al-Assad owes his tenuous hold on power to the financial and military support he receives from Iran. So far Obama has shown little inclination to involve the US in the meltdown which is facing Syria and, while that is unlikely to change, there could be more active diplomacy.

Under pressure from key allies such as Britain and Turkey, Obama could be persuaded to introduce stricter economic sanctions and authorise the introduction of a no-fly zone to protect civilians caught up in the fighting. As both Iran and Syria are the keys to many of the problems facing the Middle East, they will dominate his second term and, while he will not produce a lasting solution, keeping them safe within a firewall will count as a success.

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