President-elect Barack Obama has promised to focus attention on Gaza and Iran from day one. (Photo: Charles Dharapak / AP)
Washington - Barack Obama, the US president-elect, yesterday promised to focus on Middle East peace from the start of his administration and to treat Iran with "respect" as he set out his foreign policy thinking in greater detail.
But, in remarks that may prove disappointing to some of his supporters, he also warned that it would be a "challenge" to close the detention centre at GuantÃ¡namo Bay within 100 days of taking office.
In an interview with ABC News, Mr Obama steered clear of detailed comments on the fighting in the Gaza Strip. However, in reply to a question about Israel's response to missile attacks by Hamas, he emphasised the "basic principle" of a country's obligation to protect its citizens.
He signalled that he would not wait as long on the issue as either President George W. Bush or former President Bill Clinton - each of whom hoped to seal an IsraeliPalestinian deal during their last year in office - and that it was important to avoid being seen as favouring one or other of the two sides.
"The reason it's so important for the United States to be engaged and involved immediately, not waiting until the end of ... term, is because working through the politics of this requires a third party that everybody has confidence wants to see a fair and just outcome," said Mr Obama.
While many US and Israeli analysts accuse Iran of using Hamas to mount a proxy war against Israel through the provision of funds and arms, Mr Obama emphasised that he would take a "new approach" towards Tehran.
His policy would involve "a new emphasis on respect and a new emphasis on being willing to talk, but also a clarity about what our bottom lines are".
He added: "Iran is going to be one of our biggest challenges ... Not only is Iran exporting terrorism through Hamas, through Hizbollah, but they are pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East."
The New York Times said the Bush administration had denied Israel permission to fly over Iraq to bomb an Iranian nuclear facility, as well as bunker-busting bombs and refuelling equipment for the raid, instead briefing its ally on a US covert programme against Tehran's nuclear programme.
Mr Obama also told ABC that it would be hard to close GuantÃ¡namo Bay as soon as many people hoped. "That's a challenge," he said. "But I don't want to be ambiguous about this.
"We are going to close GuantÃ¡namo and we are going to make sure that the procedures we set up are ones that abide by our constitution."
Part of the problem was that evidence against some of the detainees "may be tainted" because of torture, "even though it's true."