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Iran Shaping Up As Key Foreign-Policy Challenge For Obama

Will the Obama administration change Washington's approach to Tehran?Will the Obama administration change Washington's approach to Tehran?
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Will the Obama administration change Washington's approach to Tehran?
Will the Obama administration change Washington's approach to Tehran?
By Golnaz Esfandiari
WASHINGTON -- For nearly three decades, Iran and the United States have traded accusations and threats. But when Barack Obama is inaugurated as U.S. president on January 20, that long-standing status quo could finally begin to change.

During his election campaign, Obama vowed to talk to Iran without preconditions, something the administration of George W. Bush has refused to consider. As a result, analysts say Obama's victory has created a chance to bridge the divide between the United States -- dubbed "The Great Satan" by Tehran's Islamic leadership -- and Iran, which Bush called part of an "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea.

Iranian officials and observers have expressed cautious optimism on the possibility of détente, as has Muhammad el-Baradei, the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), among others. On November 11, el-Baradei said he was encouraged by Obama's openness toward Iran, adding that it could make Tehran more forthcoming with the IAEA.

On November 12, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying that Obama's election opened new opportunities for a shift in relations between the United States and Iran.

Washington cut diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 revolution and the abduction of U.S. diplomats in Tehran. In recent years, tensions have risen over Iran's controversial nuclear activities and its perceived spoiler role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A number of senior Iranian officials, including hard-line President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, have called on Obama to fulfill his promises of change.

At the same time, some observers say it would be difficult for Tehran to demonize Obama, as it has done with other U.S. leaders. After all, the president-elect's middle name is Hussein, the name of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, and his last name in written Persian means "he's with us."

Ahmadinejad, in a move considered to be unprecedented, congratulated President-elect Obama earlier this month on his election victory, saying that he hopes Obama will make the most of his new role.

Four years ago, Ahmadinejad also sent a letter to Bush. The U.S. president never replied.

Obama, by contrast, has said he would send an "appropriate response" to the Iranian president.

'Change in Tone'


Patrick Clawson, the deputy director of research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, thinks that that shift in approach could be valued by the Iranian side. "The Iranian leaders have suggested that they thought some of the most important changes that were needed were a change in tone -- and I think maybe that's something Mr. Obama is quite interested in doing," Clawson says.

Obama said during his election campaign that he would talk with Iranian leaders without preconditions. Later, toning down his statement, he indicated that he would meet with Iranian leaders only if it were clearly in U.S. national interests.

Professor Abbas Milani, the director of the Iranian studies program at Stanford University, believes Obama has already changed policy by expressing readiness for talks without preconditions. Now, he says, it's up to Iran to show that it is ready for serious talks.

Milani says the time has come for Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to change his rhetoric in addressing the United States. Instead of attacking Washington as he did in a recent speech, "he should say Iran is facing a critical economic situation, the region's situation is critical, a new U.S. government is in power, and we're ready to at least sit and talk to them and see whether they're ready for serious negotiations or not," Milani says.

Khamenei has not officially responded to Obama's election. However, shortly before the U.S. election, he said that differences between the two countries are deeply rooted.

On November 14, the supreme leader's representative in Sistan-Baluchistan Province, Hojjatoleslam Abbas Ali Soleymani, noted that when Obama was elected, he immediately spoke out against Iran.

He was referring to statements Obama made in his first news conference after his election, in which he called for international efforts to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, something he said would be "unacceptable." Obama added, "Iran's support of terrorist organizations, I think, is something that has to cease."

Time For Diplomacy


Iran's nuclear program is currently the most contentious issue between the two countries. Iran says its nuclear activities are peaceful, while the United States accuses Iran of secretly trying to develop nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration has sought to force Iran to halt its uranium-enrichment program, which could have military applications. But in spite of sanctions and increased isolation, Tehran has hardened its stance.

That is one reason why a group of experts, led by top former diplomats Thomas Pickering and James Dobbins, has warned against an escalation of sanctions or a potential military attack. They recently called for direct, unconditional, and comprehensive negotiations between Iran and the United States.

Past policies have failed and it's time for true diplomacy, Dobbins says. "I do believe that while dialogue only sometimes produces agreement, it always produces information. And information allows for wiser decision-making, and we'll be in a better position to make wise decisions about how to handle Iran if we're enlightened as the result of having talked to them," he says.

But is Iran ready?

Some have their doubts, due to the country's past behavior. Among them is the director of studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Gary Samore, who says that Iran intends to push ahead with its development of nuclear technology.

"I think Iran will continue to play for time, will continue to build up its enrichment capacity until it reaches the point where they have a very substantial capability," Samore says. "And of course, Iran already has made very significant progress in terms of mastering enrichment technology and beginning to install large numbers of centrifuge machines."

It is also unclear whether Iran's hard-liners are ready to give up their "eternal enemy," because many of them see their survival linked to maintaining tensions with the United States.

Carrot Or Stick

Samore says that Iran could make a tactical change and be more receptive to the Obama administration's approach, due to dropping oil prices and economic vulnerability. Otherwise, Obama has made clear, pressure on Iran would increase.

Obama's Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, was quoted on November 18 as saying that Obama is ready to use "strong sticks and strong carrots" in dealing with Iran.

And the threat of a negative U.S. reaction is something Iran should take seriously, Shahram Chubin, director of research at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, tells Radio Farda.

"He's not going to make noise, he's going to try the diplomatic route," Chubin says. "If he sees he's being stalled, he will go back to the Europeans and others who are responsible for selling refined products to Iran and say, 'Look, I tried the diplomatic route, now either it's sanctions or we have to look at the military option.' And I think that will be much more credible than the Bush administration."

Some analysts predict there won't be any quick developments in ties between the two nations, but there is hope for a change among many Iranians. Milani believes the current opportunity -- if used properly -- could lead to change not only in foreign relations, but for Iranians at home.

"In my opinion, Obama's right policies are policies that would solve the nuclear issue and in the long term would help solve Iran's major problem -- that is, the need and demand of the Iranian people for democracy. A democracy that should be created only by Iranian people," Milani says.

Radio Farda's Hossein Aryan and RFE/RL correspondent Heather Maher contributed to this report
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Frazam
November 29, 2008 11:16
I wish good things to happen

by: sherry from: FL
November 29, 2008 14:40
Not enough credit is being given to the high gas prices this past year and it's serious damage on our economy and society. That one factor alone has caused serious stress in both individuals and businesses. A record number of homes and jobs have been lost as a direct result. And, while we are doing the happy dance around the lower prices at the pumps OPEC is announcing cuts to manipulate the prices upward again. We must get on with becoming energy independent.We can't take another year like this past. There is a wonderful new book out about the energy crisis and what it would take for America to become energy independent. It covers every aspect of oil, what it's uses are besides gasoline, our reserves, our depletion of it. Every type of alternative energy is covered and it's potential to replace oil. He even has proposed legislative agenda's that would be necessary to implement these changes along with time frames. This book is profoundly informative and our country needs to become more informed and move forward with becoming energy independent. Green technology would not only provide clean cheap energy it would create millions of badly needed new jobs. The Book is called The Manhattan Project of 2009 Energy Independence NOW. Our politicians all need to read this book. www.themanhattanprojectof2009.com<br /><br />

by: Neda from: LA
November 29, 2008 17:30
Good article. There is indeed lots of hope. Let's wait and see what the future brings.

by: James Hovland from: USA
November 30, 2008 04:26
The nuclear issue is a distraction. The real issue is the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Iran needs to be engaged to address the roots of the problem, not to deny the country their right to nuclear development. If Obama goes into this with the goal of ending Iran's nuclear development, he will lose, but if addresses the Israel issue and seeks a peaceful agreement, their is a chance that everyone wins.

by: Ziggy from: Sydney NSW Australia
November 30, 2008 08:28
All the USA has to do is to stop demanding that Iran abandon something that it is legally entitled to do - conduct a nuclear energy program. Under the NPT, Iran has the INALIENABLE RIGHT to enrich uranium - as much as it wants to - no limits. Therefore, the USA,its cronies and the UNSC do not have the legal right to demand or coerce Iran into abrogating that activity. Once the Americans understand that there is such a thing as international law and they are bound to observe it like all other nations, then progress will be made. Until then, Iran will treat the USA with the contempt it deserves.

by: Ali
December 01, 2008 08:01
Iran has the right to enrich uranium but it should be transparent about its nuclear activities and work with the IAEA. The country needs to open up and as truly noted by professor Milani ties with the US would be in the benefit of Iranians. <br /><br /><br /><br />

by: Ziggy from: Sydney NSW Australia
December 01, 2008 20:32
&quot;On November 11, ElBaradei said he was encouraged by Obama's openness toward Iran, adding that it could make Tehran more forthcoming with the IAEA.&quot;<br /><br />More forthcoming? Isa this a joke? Iran has, and is still fully complying with all provisions of the NPT. What Iran is NOT doing is re-establishing the VOLUNTARY Additional Protocol because all it did was delay Iran's development without any tangible benefit.<br /><br />“Iran's support of terrorist organizations, I think, is something that has to cease.&quot; said Obama. What amazing hypocrisy. Right now, the USA, via the CIA is funding the terrorist organisation Jundullah and US troops are making illegal incursions into Iran. Is this not terrorism and the support of terrorism? What about the USA's support of the Afghan mujaheddin that created the monster Osama Bin Laden? What about the USA's support of the infamous Iran-Contra terrorists attempting to overthrow the elected Nicaraguan government. The USA has NOTHING to complain about, because the USA has funded and supported terrorists all over the world for decades.<br /><br />&quot;Gary Samore, who says that Iran intends to push ahead with its development of nuclear technology.&quot; So what? Iran has the INALIENABLE RIGHT under the NPT to do exactly that, so there's nothing further discuss. Iran can have as many centrifuges as it wants, can enrich as much uranium as it wants and continue to develop a nuclear energy program - because that is Iran's LEGAL RIGHT and no nation or organisation has any right to try and stop it.<br /><br />&quot;Dennis Ross, was quoted on November 18 as saying that Obama is ready to use &quot;strong sticks and strong carrots&quot; in dealing with Iran.&quot; What sticks&quot; What carrots? Iran doesn't have to accept anything the USA demands. Threats against Iran are illegal under the UN Charter and the the &quot;carrots&quot; are meaningless, because Iran does not have to accept any inducements to stop an activity that is completely legal, such as uranium enrichment.<br /><br />The position of the USA is both a joke and stupid. Iran is quite rightly standing up to the illegal demands and bullying and it is the USA that is acting illegally by demanding regime change of an elected government of a sovereign state and demanding that Iran abandonon a perfectly legal activity just because the USA does not like it - blatant interference. Well too bad. The USA has finally encountered a nation that will not be stood over by this gangster-like behaviour.

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