As President Obama looks at the landscape of international challenges surrounding him, he may take comfort from one of the most unexpected of all trouble spots.
The news from Iran, for a change, brings a glimmer of light to an otherwise somber scenery. Amid news of North Korea shelling its southern neighbor, Ireland's flirtation with default and an embarrassment in Afghanistan at the hands of a Taliban impostor, it looks like that nemesis of Washington and its friends, the regime that rules the Islamic Republic of Iran, is facing a mountain of troubles of its own.
That is excellent news for Obama, the West and almost every country in the Middle East. Still, it is much too soon to declare victory, or even to assume that the outcome of the unfolding crisis in Tehran will lead to the results Washington would like to see.
Two sets of revelations from Tehran in recent days point to significant divisions within the ruling regime and to serious setbacks in Iran's nuclear program.
Iranian media reports that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has survived a parliamentary effort to impeach him, but only because Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the legislature to stop. Apparently, the push to remove Ahmadinejad is not over. Unlike the violent confrontations in the aftermath of the stolen 2009 elections, this is not a fight between Conservatives and Reformers. This time, Conservatives are leading the movement against the Ultra-Conservative president and his powerful protector.
They accuse Ahmadinejad of 14 counts of breaking the law, including trading millions of barrels of crude oil for gasoline and withdrawing hundreds of millions of dollars from the country's foreign reserves without parliamentary authorization.
Parliamentarians are reportedly gathering signatures again to try to resurrect the impeachment.
An even more serious challenge to the regime comes from the economic squeeze that has intensified in recent months. Political divisions are usually exacerbated during such times, and the growing hardships will soon become much more severe. This is partly because of international sanctions imposed as a result of Iran's refusal to stop a nuclear enrichment program that many believe aims to produce nuclear weapons. It is also because of horrific mismanagement of the economy by Ahmadinejad and his predecessors.
Tehran spends about one-third of the national budget on subsidies. Amid harsh sanctions, the $100 billion subsidy price tag has become unsustainable, even if it helps millions survive in a struggling economy. Subsidy reductions have already started and are about to cut much deeper. That will add enormously to the cost of living for the poor, Ahmadinejad's base, adding to the pressure.
Amid the growing turmoil comes word that nuclear enrichment suddenly stopped in mid-November. United Nations inspectors, visiting the Natanz enrichment plant for only about one hour, noticed that the plant was shutting down. The shutdown is believed to have been temporary. The Stuxnet computer virus, a sophisticated program that infected Iran's nuclear installations, may have forced the shutdown, dealing it an important, if temporary, setback.
A victory for Obama, however, is far from assured. Even if Ahmadinejad falls, the nuclear effort enjoys broad support in Iran. His successor would very likely support it as well. In fact, Ahmadinejad's undiplomatic presence arguably helps Washington's international sanctions efforts more than would another less-strident Iranian leader espousing the same ideology.
Iran remains in the clutch of the religious and military establishments, with the Revolutionary Guard Corps as powerful as ever and the Basiji militia ready to brutalize any serious opposition. The real reformers, the so-called Greens, remain largely silenced at the moment.
And yet, the latest news from Iran does show that the country is feeling the pressure. Iran's regime is making a cost-benefit analysis: Is the cost of the sanctions - and the possibility that Iran could face military strikes - worth continuing with international defiance? The higher the cost, the higher the possibility that a growing number of Iranians, in and out of government, could decide it's time to put an end to the nuclear program, and perhaps even to the current regime.
Despite the endless list of foreign policy challenges, if the Obama administration can produce a victory on Iran - still a big "if" - it will go a long way in proving its foreign-policy mettle to America's allies and would-be enemies, as well as to American voters and future historians.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for The Miami Herald. Readers may send her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.