President Obama's Opening to Iran: A step in the right direction but Tehran likely to once again miss the opportunity

Posted in Iran | 23-Mar-09 | Author: Christian Koch| Source: Gulf Research Center

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seen here in September 2008, has said the Islamic republic is willing to change if US President Barack Obama leads the way by changing American attitude towards his country.

With his video message on the occasion of the Iranian New Year Nowruz, US President Barack Obama made a significant gesture to Iran that if properly responded to by the Iranian leadership, holds the potential to reduce tensions in the Gulf region. It is a first step that clearly underlines the current US administration's determination to initiate a new approach towards Iran that is different from its predecessor's. It also introduces the critical element of public diplomacy by addressing the Iranian people directly which so far has been sorely missed in US policy towards Tehran. Unfortunately, for various reasons, Iran is unlikely to take advantage of this opportunity as was clear from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini's dismissal of the message as being merely cosmetic and lacking any real change in the US position. The likely result is the further isolation of Iran to the detriment of regional security.

In his message, President Obama outlined a new approach to the strained US-Iran relationship. First, his message came somewhat as a surprise at a time when most analysts still expected the administration to continue its internal deliberations before taking any sort of initiative, possibly waiting until the outcome of the Iranian presidential election later on in June of this year. Instead, President Obama made it clear that he wants a new relationship with Iran and that this is not contingent on internal developments inside Iran. As far as his administration is concerned, simply waiting in the hope for a more constructive government in Tehran is not the answer. Second, the administration chose the occasion of Nowruz, a very important time in Iran when people are in a celebratory mood despite the many economic and social hardships they face. The acknowledgment of this occasion, in addition to delivering his message with Farsi subtitles so that it can reach and be read by all Iranians, is bound to have a positive resonance among Iran's population.

Third, and in connection to the timing, President Obama finally did what the US should have done a long time ago, in that he directly addressed the Iranian people. The message laid out and defined values and ideas that are common to both sides and with which the Iranian population can identify. In addition, he repeatedly addressed the people and leaders of Iran jointly thereby finally acknowledging that trying to drive a wedge between Iran's leaders and its people is non-productive and that overall the policy of trying to identify moderates with whom the US can talk is not a constructive mechanism to overcome the differences of the past. This is a clear departure from previous attempts to seek regime change in Iran. Fourth, and possibly most important in terms of the way forward, the president made it clear that while Iran is a "great civilization" with numerous "accomplishments" that deserve "respect" and that Iran has a "rightful place in the community of nations," this is not a one-way street and that any right comes with "real responsibilities" and a "demonstrated ability to build and create" rather than the "capacity to destroy." What this demonstrated was a focus on the positive and the way ahead instead of continuing to clamor on the existing differences as irreconcilable obstacles.

In essence, President Obama's address was a very carefully constructed and thoughtful message that has to be seen as a step in the right direction. On all fronts - its timing, its tone, and most importantly, its content - the new US administration must be applauded for this initiative. What it demonstrated is a central understanding that if change is to come about in the Iranian position and policy, it will not come about solely through pressure and intimidation, and neither will it come from trying to deal solely with the Iranian leadership in the hope of eliciting a more constructive position. The connection here to Iran's nuclear program is illustrative. The past few years have made it clear that the current leadership in Tehran is not interested in true negotiations but rather that its sole objective is to buy time to avoid making any concessions on the nuclear front. Ultimately, this is a dead-end road. And if the dynamics of this equation are to be changed, pressure must come from other directions. The Iranian public is one such angle. If there is one thing Iran's leaders must fear more than anything else, it is the rising demand from within for a different course in its international relations. Up to this point, outside pressure has been used by the regime of President Ahmadinejad to prop up failing and short-sighted domestic policies. By bringing in the Iranian populace into the discussions, President Obama has enlarged the debate and enhanced the chances for substantive discussions.

As any development in US-Iran relations needs to be viewed within the larger context of regional Gulf security, it needs to be mentioned that the US President's message is completely in line with the interests of the GCC states to promote a better and workable relationship with its neighbor Iran. There is no appetite in the Gulf for another conflict and the GCC leaders have consistently over the years stressed that they seek a friendly Iran that structures its relations with the Arab Gulf states on an equal footing and based on mutual respect and the non-interference in internal affairs. It has been the consistent argument from the GCC that Gulf security cannot be accomplished without Iran but neither can it be constructed around an Iran that seeks to institutionalize its dominance over its neighbors. In this context, recent statements by GCC officials of the need for a common front against Iran are not meant to close the door to negotiations with Tehran but are simply a response to an intransigent Iranian leadership that continues to ignore the interests of the Arab Gulf, seeks to continue to advance its hegemonic aspirations throughout the region, and is intent on interference in domestic Arab affairs to maintain a degree of instability in the region. In this context, continued Iranian statements that question the independence and sovereignty of Bahrain can only be answered by a united stance that clearly rejects such assertions. Iran needs to also understand that it cannot divide the GCC states from its US ally. While GCC fears about being sidelined in possibly US-Iran negotiations are completely justified, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear that the GCC states would be consulted on any initiative towards Iran.

Ultimately, where does the message of the US President take the region? To be sure, the door has once again been opened for Iran to respond positively to another attempt for a new stage in relations. Yet, the Iranian track record on understanding new realities and adequately responding to opportunities is not good. In the past, Iran has continually failed to take advantage of chances to build a more constructive regional relationship, for example, by trying to genuinely resolve the issue of the three islands with the UAE, by failing to join the Arab peace initiative on the Arab-Israeli conflict or responding to the proposal by Saudi Arabia for a joint regional enrichment consortium. Based on its initial reactions to President Obama's message - including demands for US apologies for past grievances and for halting claims that Iran is seeking nuclear arms - Iran looks set to also waste the present opportunity.

It would be unrealistic to expect the US to simply forget the past and base its policy on Iranian demands. President Obama's decision to extend the sanctions against Iran is a clear indication that real concerns remain. Yet, the Nowruz message is a balanced approach that lays out the current choices for Iran. If it responds appropriately, Iran is likely to see its interests respected within a comprehensive approach to regional security. But Iran cannot have its cake and eat it too, and if Tehran continues to reject all initiatives laid at its doorstep, it will likely find itself isolated further. For this, it will have only itself to blame.