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World News

SCENARIOS - Obama faces wars, nuclear aims of Iran, North Korea

(Reuters) - Barack Obama inherits wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stalled nuclear negotiations with North Korea and Iran, and a crisis in the Gaza Strip when he becomes U.S. president on Tuesday.

Here are some of major foreign policy challenges the Democrat will face, how he may approach them and why it may be difficult to make headway.

ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT

Obama has said a U.S. president must be “engaged and involved immediately” in trying to solve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. He may have no choice.

Israel on Saturday called off a three-week military offensive in the Gaza Strip. Its stated objective was to end rocket attacks from the coastal enclave, which is ruled by the Hamas Islamist group that is officially committed to the Israel’s destruction.

At least 1,200 Palestinians have been killed and 5,300 wounded since the fighting began on Dec 27, Hamas officials said. Thirteen Israelis have died.

While the immediate crisis may have abated, Obama is still left with the problems of rebuilding Gaza and devising a way to bring Israelis and Palestinians back to peace talks.

Given the political divisions on both sides, it will not be easy. The Palestinians are split between Hamas, which rules Gaza and remains officially committed to the destruction of Israel, and Fatah, which holds sway in the West Bank and whose leader, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, has spent more than a year engaged in U.S.-backed peace talks with Israel.

Israel plans an election in February, leaving it unclear who will lead the Jewish state and how committed they may be to peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

Two questions Obama must decide: How deeply the United States should get involved in the peace process and whether it should take a harder line towards Israel, for example on halting settlement building in the West Bank.

One asset for Obama may be that his nominee for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has been a staunch supporter of Israel, possibly giving her greater scope to convince Israeli officials to make concessions.

IRAN

The United States accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear arms, a development that U.S. officials fear could threaten Arab oil producers, spark a regional arms race and lead to global proliferation if Tehran sold its nuclear technology.

Iran says its nuclear program is designed to produce power so it can export more of its oil and gas.

The Bush administration has pursued a carrot-and-stick strategy that, so far, has made no progress.

One approach Obama could take is to offer Iran bigger carrots in the form of economic or political benefits, as well as to brandish bigger sticks by threatening to impose more sanctions at the United Nations or among groups of nations.

Another avenue would be to talk directly to Tehran to try to strike a “grand bargain” to resolve the nuclear issue and ease tensions.

Obama has made clear his willingness to deal directly with Iran, something the Bush administration has largely resisted.

The difficulty in the first approach is that Russia, and to a lesser degree China, have resisted imposing harsher Security Council sanctions on Tehran. It is also possible that Iran may be unwilling to abandon its nuclear ambitions at any price.

The difficulty with the second approach is that although Obama may be willing to talk, it is by no means clear that Iran is ready to do so.

NORTH KOREA

North Korea resumed producing plutonium during the Bush administration and in 2006 tested a nuclear device, potentially threatening U.S. allies South Korea and Japan.

After initially resisting talks with North Korea, the Bush administration secured a six-party, aid-for-disarmament deal with North Korea and its neighbours designed to gradually dismantle its nuclear programs.

While it has taken steps to disable its atomic complex at Yongbyon, North Korea has refused to put on paper a protocol that would allow foreigners to verify its nuclear activities and their dismantlement.

Clinton said last week that she would review the diplomatic record of the talks between the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

She also called the six-party process a “vehicle for us to exert pressure on North Korea in a way that is more likely to alter their behaviour,” making clear its advantages as well as hinting at the possibility of taking another approach.

Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, suggested the new U.S. president could offer a path to dramatically improved economic and political relations if North Korea gave up nuclear weapons and gradually reformed its military, economy and human rights behaviour.

But more flexible U.S. diplomacy may not work, particularly with a country like North Korea that analysts say has a history of intransigence and brinkmanship.

IRAQ/AFGHANISTAN

Obama has said he wants U.S. combat forces out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office. His ability to do so hinges on violence in the country continuing to decline and on the capabilities of Iraqi security forces.

He also has committed to sending more U.S. forces to Afghanistan to tackle insurgent violence that has risen in recent years.

But it is still unclear what precise strategy Obama will pursue in Afghanistan, and some analysts question whether additional troops will make a meaningful difference in a country without a history of central control.

Editing by Patricia Wilson and Xavier Briand

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