You are here

Obama’s Overtures to Iran

Dr. M. Mahtab Alam Rizvi is Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • March 30, 2009

    US President Barack Obama’s landmark appeal to the Iranian people for a shift away from decades of confrontation was a significant move in the right direction. Obama’s videotaped message on March 20, 2009 (on the occasion of Nowruz) stated that “the US wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations but it comes with real responsibilities...” Obama’s offers came 30 years after the US broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. The President had promised in his election campaign to negotiate with Iran directly with a fresh approach and reach out to the Iranian people. At the same time Obama also warned Iranian leaders that ‘this process will not be advanced by threats or terror or arms… we seek instead engagement that is honest and grounded in mutual respect.’

    Obama’s overture does seem to have an impact within the Iranian polity, with a majority welcoming the message as overwhelmingly and universally positive. Though it has had no significant impact in realigning the internal political battles, the new US diplomacy has had a sobering impact in terms of undermining the hardliners and their view of a hostile US government bent on oppressing Iran.

    It is clear that the US has managed to create fresh division among reformists, moderates, and hardliners. While the hardliners seem not inclined to budge from their disagreement with the West, the moderate and reformists perhaps are incline to pursue a non-confrontational stance and may be even accept a limited compromise on the nuclear standoff. The new US posture would inevitably impact on the forthcoming presidential elections scheduled for June 2009. It is clear that the reformists and moderates are expected to give a tough fight to the hardliners. However, the important issue is whether the US will be successful in strengthening the moderates thus enabling them to oust the hardliners from power.

    Iranian officials appear cautious given the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s statement that Iran does not see any change in US policy towards its government. Khamanei asked how Obama could wish the Iranian people and leaders even as he continues to blame Iran of supporting terrorism and seeking nuclear weapons. More critically, a senior official in Tehran, Ali Akbar Javanfekr, pointed out that Iran would never forget the previous hostile and belligerent attitude of the US. The new US administration has to own up to past American mistakes and work towards rectifying issues like the 1953 coup, downing of an Iranian civilian airline in 1988, US support to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, etc.

    One of the most complex security challenges for the US administration is undoubtedly Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Iran’s defiance of international opinion has led to a situation where the US has threatened military action should diplomacy fail. In the past, the Bush administration had pursued a ‘twin approaches’ policy, favouring containment of Iran’s nuclear aspirations while participating in a ‘limited engagement’ on one hand and exercising ‘coercive diplomacy’ that would eventually lead to a roll back of the Iranian nuclear programme on the other.

    Many advocate a combination of diplomacy and economic rewards as a viable option to break the deadlock. Sanctions by the United Nations Security Council do not appear to have materially slowed down Iran’s nuclear programme so far.

    There is new optimism on the ground as the new US administration has expressed its intent to negotiate with Iran directly. But this is also not something new. President Bush had also sent his senior diplomat William Burns to Geneva on July 19, 2008 to join Iran and the five-plus-one powers to discuss the nuclear issue with Iran. The US had also indicated its willingness to reopen its mission in Tehran. Besides, Washington had also given a clearance to open a think tank in Tehran.

    Obama, however, seems to have brought new agendas to the table. He has indicated that if Iran abandons its nuclear programme and support for terrorism, the US could offer incentives like membership in the World Trade Organisation, economic investments, and a move toward normal diplomatic relations. It is clear that Obama’s new overtures to Iran indicate fulfillment of the first step of his foreign policy agenda.

    Finally, this is undoubtedly a welcome departure from past trends in Iran-US relations. The US has taken a positive step forward. It is now Iran’s turn to create the best of the opportunity provided to it.