Accessibility links

Breaking News

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?
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
  • 16x9 Image

    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

If you are in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine and hold a Russian passport or are a stateless person residing permanently in Russia or the Russia-controlled parts of Ukraine, please note that you could face fines or imprisonment for sharing, liking, commenting on, or saving our content, or for contacting us.

To find out more, click here.