Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (C) holds a reception in honour of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (R) in the presence of Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah (L) on February 25, 2010 in Damascus, Syria.

The two-day visit by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, to Syria and his warm meetings with his Syrian counterpart as well as with the leaders of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas have ruffled many feathers in the US, Europe and Israel.

Although they said much about the future of the region, including the end of the ’Zionist regime’, the anti-Israeli gathering has sent a primarily strategic not polemical message: We stand united - an attack on one of us is an attack on all.

A deterrent message to both Israel and the US, it comes against the backdrop of increased war speculation in Israel and mounting pressures to pass a new round of tougher sanctions against Iran.

It is also a wake up call for US diplomats who reckoned that Washington’s rapprochement with Damascus, including the reopening of its embassy, should lead to a severing, or at least cooling, of Syrian relations with Tehran.

But while such public posturing has not deterred Israel or worried Washington in the past, it does complicate attempts to isolate Iran or its allies.

Diplomatic assault, military preparations

Since the White House shifted its Iran strategy from accommodation to confrontation, Washington’s coercive diplomacy has been going at full speed.

The Obama administration has been lobbying the Middle East and the world’s influential capitals in the hope of isolating Iran and passing another UN Security Council resolution that would include biting sanctions against Tehran.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, escalated US rhetoric against the Iranian regime during a visit to the Gulf where she warned of a Revolutionary Guards takeover and the militarisation of the Iranian government.

General Petraeus made a similar visit to the Gulf and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, travelled to Russia, followed by Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to convince Moscow to abandon Iran.

However, Washington seems frustrated by either the lack of positive response or the slow pace of international reaction to Tehran’s persistence in enriching uranium and expanding its nuclear and missile programme.

Russian hesitance, Chinese objection

Russia seems to have softened its rejection of the US strategy of sanctions, but has not agreed to them either. Moscow thinks it is too early to carry out such escalatory actions when the issue is still being discussed at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

If and when such sanctions come to be voted on at the UN Security Council, Russia insists that they should be focused solely on the nuclear programme, not the country or its regime which Moscow does not consider to be a dictatorship.

Beijing is as sceptical of Washington’s motives and more reluctant than Moscow to slap Iran with tough new sanctions.

Moscow’s approach is defined primarily by security considerations, especially the loss of whatever strategic leverage it has with Tehran and the probable escalation on its southern borders. China’s thinking, however, is molded on geo-economics grounds, particularly the prospect of losing Iran as an important energy supplier and economic partner.

The Chinese and Russian leadership are both uneasy with the new American escalation in the Islamic world after US entanglements in Afghanistan and Iraq.

They worry that the political and security overspill from widening the landscape of confrontation in the Muslim world could end up affecting their substantial Muslim minorities and eventually their internal stability.

Washington’s attempt to make up for the loss of Iran’s energy supply (through Saudi Arabia?), and its persistent warning to Russia about the alternative to sanctions (war!) do not seem to have, yet, convinced the two key veto carrying members of the UN Security Council to come on board.

Neither side believes sanctions will bring a solution to the impasse with Iran and both consider protracted geopolitical tensions with Iran to be terribly destabilising.

Anxious Saudi, aggressive Israel

Regionally, the two relevant powers, Saudi Arabia (to a far less extent, Egypt) and Israel are keen to stop Iran’s nuclear programme and to curtail Tehran’s influence.

However, as Israel nudges its US patron to move speedily towards imposing new tough sanctions and to prepare for war, Riyadh is worried about a new protracted American strategy and insists on a speedier end to the tensions with Tehran.

The Gulf states are the first to be affected by long-term tensions or military escalation between the US and Iran.

Recent US naval deployments in the Gulf and its sales of sophisticated weapons to Gulf countries have not calmed their fears that an escalation of those tensions could bring down their economies and affect their security.

The same could apply to other parts of the ’Greater Middle East’ such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine which could be affected by an escalation between the US and Iran.

US bold, Iran confident

Who will blink first is the whole point of this dangerous diplomatic exercise.

Iran reckons that China and Russia will not sacrifice their relations with Iran and will object to another American escalation in the Middle East. They also realise that new punitive measures will not suffice to curtail Tehran’s programme.

For its part, the Obama administration calculates that Chinese/Russian cooperation is indispensable, but that it will take substantial political capital and major quid pro quo for them to come on board.

If Iran continues to defy Washington publicly and successfully, the political price demanded by Russia and China could only increase, all of which puts extra pressure on Washington to act promptly.

But what can the Obama administration offer its fellow UN Security Council members that is worthy of isolating Iran, aside from threatening the alternative - war?

And there is no doubt that war will be either horribly destructive or terribly protracted. Either way, Washington has the most to lose, not Moscow or Beijing.

All of which should send the Obama administration back to the drawing board. Has President Obama truly exhausted the diplomatic track before the US attends to sanctions or war?

In other words, has the Obama administration truly extended a hand or unclenched its fist for the sake of a peaceful resolution to the Iranian Middle East impasse?

The answer is an unequivocal NO.

It is time to remind Barack Obama of his willingness as a candidate to meet with his Iranian counterpart as president if that can protect US interests, and remind President Ahmadinejad of his welcoming of the extended US hand for peace last spring.

Well Mr Presidents, it is time.