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Obama's Policy toward Iran
A Shift from Bush's Policy of Confrontation


By Mohamed El-Khawas

Guyana Journal, April 2009

Iran's nuclear program is unfinished business that President Bush left for the new administration. The problem is centered on Iran's uranium enrichment. Tehran claims that it is enriching uranium only to the level needed for energy production to meet the needs of its growing population. The U.S. and the European Union (EU) disagree and insist that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons. They argue that once the enrichment technology is perfected, Iran will be able to produce a higher weapons-grade level of uranium. So far, neither U.N. sanctions nor European diplomacy has convinced Tehran to halt its uranium enrichment program except for a short period in 2005. U.S. administrations, both Republican and Democratic, are determined to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons out of concern that it will trigger a nuclear arms race in the region and will threaten Israel which already possesses nuclear weapons.

Like other new administrations, President Barack Obama ordered a review of his predecessor's policy toward Iran to help him decide on a policy that would promote American security interests in the highly strategic region. Would he continue Bush's policy which had advocated regime change and considered Iran part of an axis of evil? This hard-line policy strained the relationship with Iran and made no progress toward resolving the nuclear problem in eight years. Will Obama change course to ease tension and to find a peaceful way to solve this problem?

President Obama felt an urgency to improve relations with Iran to pave the way for constructive engagement to resolve the nuclear issue. He did not want to wait for the policy review to be completed or for the Iranian June elections to be held. He has taken steps to change his predecessor's strategy of no direct talks and has sought rapprochement with Iran after three decades of hostility. He advocates the use of diplomacy and is looking for some common ground on which the two governments can collaborate for confidence building. For this reason, he has stepped in and has once again asserted a U.S. leadership role in world affairs. He is following an incremental approach applying a combination of stick and carrot to improve the relationship and to find a way to engage Iranian leaders to resolve the nuclear problem peacefully.

Greetings for the New Year
In March, President Obama sent greetings to the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran for the Persian New Year (Nowruz). The use of the country's official name, which had never been uttered by Bush, intended to signal a break away from past policy, which had aimed at toppling the Tehran regime. Obama acknowledged that there are serious differences between the two countries but emphasized his commitment to diplomacy and sought engagement with Iran that is "grounded in mutual respect". Meanwhile, he cautioned Tehran that it cannot "take its rightful place in the community of nations . . . through terror and arms, but rather through peaceful actions."

Iranian leaders' reactions were mixed. Although some officials welcomed the gesture, they argued that President Obama should talk directly with their leaders. As Ali Akbar Javanfekr, the Iranian President's press adviser, put it, "These are real problems that cannot be solved by only talking. We need to see real steps from the U.S." Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, saw only a change in rhetoric but not in policy. He noted, for example, that Obama renewed trade sanctions on the pretext that Iran continues to pose an "unusual and extraordinary threat" to American national security. Furthermore, Obama retained the Bush-appointed Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey whose efforts have stifled Iran's international banking activities, causing more harm to its economy than U.N. sanctions. In view of these facts, Khamenei concluded that the Obama administration "must change its policies toward Iran and the region" to prove its credibility. He added that if the U.S. does, Iran would change too.

The Hague Summit on Afghanistan
Washington decided to test the water and see if Iran could cooperate on Afghanistan, where Obama has developed a new strategy "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda." He sought to form an international contact group that would include Iran and other countries, which have a stake in the region's security. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton invited Iran to participate in an international conference on Afghanistan at The Hague at the end of March. Tehran's attendance gave their diplomats an opportunity to meet and converse on the sidelines.

During the conference, the U.S. special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, met with Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mehdi Akhundzahed and handed him an unsigned note. It was an appeal for the safe return of Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, the release of Roxana Saberi, an Iranian American freelance journalist, and the permission for her and Esha Momeni, an Iranian American student, to leave Iran. This was an unusual move because the Swiss government normally handles the delivery of diplomatic notes between the two governments since they have had no diplomatic relations since 1979.

Secretary Clinton did not meet with the Iranian top diplomat but hinted that Washington understands that the Afghan problem cannot be solved without its neighbors' involvement. As she put it, "Trafficking in narcotics, the spread of violent extremism, economic stagnation, water management, electrification and irrigation are regional challenges that will require regional solutions." In a press conference at The Hague, Clinton praised as "promising" the Iranian diplomat's remarks that his government is "fully prepared" to participate in the efforts to halt drug trafficking and border security. It seems that the two countries might be able to collaborate on Afghanistan to pave the way for further talks.

On April 8, 2009, Secretary Clinton announced in London that the U.S. would join Britain, France, Germany, Russia, and China in future talks with Iran over its nuclear program. This was Obama's latest move away from Bush's policy of refusing to participate in international talks with Iran. (The only exception was last July when an American official attended a meeting with Iran and other countries.) During the G-20 Summit in London, Obama also solicited Russian help on Iran. He told President Dmitry Medvedev that if Iran would end its nuclear program, the U.S. might not need a missile defense system in Europe, which Moscow has sternly opposed. The following day, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad expressed his willingness to negotiate with other nations on nuclear and other issues but made it clear that his country would not suspend its uranium enrichment program.

Obama has taken bold steps to reach out to Iran. In response, Tehran has shown some flexibility and responded cautiously to Washington's initiative. There are tough issues to be addressed and conflicting agendas to be reconciled. U.S. officials see an urgency in halting Iran's uranium enrichment in order to stop the country from developing nuclear weapons. Iran, on the other hand, sees no reason to compromise on this issue unless the U.S. is willing to address its concerns over U.S. sanctions and security concerns. As Hussein Alaei, a retired Revolutionary Guards' admiral, commented that "All outstanding issues between Iran and the United States should be seen as a package first. We should start working on the main problems first and discuss the details later."

Although some progress has been made, there are many obstacles standing in the way of resolving the nuclear issue. It is going to take some time for both sides to overcome three decades of hostility and acrimonious words. Uranium enrichment is the only ace Iran has. It intends to drive a hard bargain to extract concessions from the U.S. before a compromise can be found. It will expedite the process, however, if the U.S. is willing to have side talks with Iran to discuss issues of mutual concerns.

Washington, D.C.
April 13, 2009

Dr. Mohamed El-Khawas is a professor in the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.