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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Foreign policy has not played a central role in this country's presidential election. But as we'll hear this week, whoever wins will face a complicated world.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In the Middle East and Persian Gulf, several authoritarian rulers are going or gone, including some the U.S. once relied on to deliver stability.

INSKEEP: The winner of the presidential election will deal with a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and a civil war in Syria.

MONTAGNE: Then there's the confrontation with a government that has not fallen: Iran.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When you ask Middle East experts about U.S. policy in the region, the conversation used to focus mainly on the Arab-Israeli peace process. But these days, there is no peace process, and the U.S. has a huge inbox, which Jon Alterman describes this way.

JON ALTERMAN: The Middle East security situation, the mess.

KELEMEN: Alterman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says at the top of this messy inbox is Iran and its suspect nuclear program.

ALTERMAN: Iran is, I think, the central, predictable issue. The problem is, in the Middle East, there are a whole range unpredictable issues, and it's unclear both how they will unfold and how they might relate to our security concerns with Iran.

KELEMEN: Israel wants to see the U.S. set out clear red lines on Iran, while Iran, Alterman predicts, will try to be ambiguous about its nuclear program as long as it can.

ALTERMAN: I think there's a large school of thought that says when the Iranians get a capability, the first sign won't be a mushroom cloud. There will be a trickle of signs, and they'll try to nurture that condition as long as they can. How do you respond to that?

KELEMEN: That's a question facing either a second-term President Obama or a Romney administration, says Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: At some point in the next four years, the United States may have to face a binary choice of whether to accept an Iranian nuclear weapons capability - not necessarily an Iranian nuclear weapon, but an Iranian nuclear weapons capability - or to take military action to prevent that likelihood.

KELEMEN: Both President Obama and candidate Romney say they won't accept a nuclear-armed Iran, but Sadjadpour says voters are tired of wars in the Middle East and want more focus on the U.S. economy.

SADJADPOUR: I think a majority of Americans, whether Democrat or Republican, would like to see more of a focus on nation-building at home, and they'd like to see a reduction of the U.S. footprint in the Middle East. That's going to be very difficult to do if we embark on some type of military conflagration with Iran.

KELEMEN: So he expects the U.S. - whether it's an Obama or Romney administration - to continue to pursue sanctions and diplomacy. But throughout the Middle East, the U.S. is having to recalibrate its policies. Martin Indyk writes in a new book called "Bending History" that the U.S. was in a poor position to deal with all the uprisings.

MARTIN INDYK: We didn't go into the Arab awakenings in a good position, partly because of the failure of the effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but mostly because Republican and Democratic presidents for the last five decades have supported the idea of the Middle East exception.

KELEMEN: That is that the U.S.-backed authoritarian rulers to provide stability, largely ignoring human rights concerns and other issues. But those pillars are now shaking, Indyk says.

INDYK: We're facing a region in turmoil, in which we have to try find a way to shore up our friends, take advantage of the opportunities that exist, find a way to get on the right side of the political change that is sweeping across the region, and we have to seek stability where we can find it. But it's a whole different world out there, where it's going to be very difficult to find our footing.

KELEMEN: And the U.S. isn't in much of a position to shape the region, says Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

ALTERMAN: You can move the dials a little bit, but I think what we've come to appreciate over the last 18 months is we're not in the driver's seat in any of these processes. And while we can position where we want to be, we can't steer where the societies go.

KELEMEN: The conflict in Syria will be yet another challenge, as it becomes more sectarian and threatens to engulf other countries in the region. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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INSKEEP: And we'll continue our series this afternoon on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Michele looks at the challenges posed to the next president by China.

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INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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