- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009

Iran’s nuclear program and its increased regional influence have replaced the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the main concern of governments in the Middle East, the Obama administration’s chief envoy for the region said Thursday.

Jeffrey D. Feltman, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing that the fears about Iran have become “the key development in the region”

“When you traveled around the [Middle East] five, six, seven years ago, almost everywhere you went, the first thing that came up was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Mr. Feltman said. “When you travel around today, what you are going to hear about is Iran.”

He said the United States and other countries trying to bring Iran to the negotiating table regarding its nuclear program - Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China - are still awaiting a response from Tehran. He reiterated the administration’s goal of preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon.

Iran continues to enrich uranium, saying it is meant only for civilian use and rejecting the West’s claims that it plans to weaponize its program. So far, it has ignored a package with economic and political incentives to suspend enrichment and has defied three U.N. Security Council sanctions resolutions.

Even though concerns about Iran are raised by officials in the region before anything else, “we want to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to remove one of the tools that Iran uses to distract the region from what Iran is doing,” Mr. Feltman said.

He called Iran a “spoiler” in the pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace through its support for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

‘We want to try to pursue some opportunities here, given the shared international and regional concern about Iranian practices,” he said.

Mr. Feltman was U.S. ambassador to Beirut during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah. A career diplomat, he joined the Foreign Service in 1986 and has also served in Israel, Iraq, Hungary and Haiti.

Another career diplomat, Robert O. Blake, appeared before the committee along with Mr. Feltman for his confirmation hearing as assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs.

Mr. Blake praised the Pakistani government and military for fighting the Taliban in the country’s Swat Valley in recent days, a clash that has killed many militants but also displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.

“We are encouraged by the steps the Pakistanis have taken in Swat,” he said. “We do think that important progress is being made.”

A former deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, Mr. Blake was most recently ambassador to Sri Lanka. Asked at the hearing whether any U.S. officials have visited the camps of refugees fleeing heavy fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels in the country’s north, he said that access is restricted to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Both nominees will be working in the shadows of two formidable figures serving as special envoys - former Sen. George Mitchell in Mr. Feltman’s region and Richard C. Holbrooke in Mr. Blake’s area. Mr. Blake said Thursday that Mr. Holbrooke will continue to take the lead in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Administration officials said that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had a hard time filling Mr. Blake’s position because some senior career diplomats were reluctant to work in the same area as Mr. Holbrooke.