Barack Obama is not yet sitting in the Oval Office, and is still putting together his national security team. But it is safe to assume that he and his advisers are already thinking of the big policy shifts he intends to announce. And somewhere at the top of his priorities is Iran, this large and complex country with the potential to drag the Middle East down or, as Obama hopes, help stabilise it. Like every president from the hapless Jimmy Carter to the ideological George W Bush, Obama is in for a bumpy ride – even with the best of intentions.
Indeed, Obama already has to beware of malicious traps and identify signs of goodwill. For example, he received a letter of congratulations from the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad immediately after his election. A friendly gesture one would think, except that Ahmadinejad is craving international attention to shore up his declining domestic fortunes. So the gains from a cordial Obama response are next to nil: Ahmadinejad is not Iran’s top decision maker, that is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Then there is the much more consequent – but less publicised – Iranian decision to stop opposing the Status of Forces Agreement between the US and Iraq. With Obama wanting to reduce US presence in Iraq, it is no small gesture.
This is the moving but treacherous terrain on which Obama already operates. Much of what will happen in coming months will be cautious posturing from both sides, with Obama mostly focusing on the transition and the economy, and Iran holding its own presidential contest.
But Obama has already outlined the major lines of his Iran policy. He made it clear that he does not harbour naive views on Iran, but is also willing to challenge some of America’s long-standing fears and prejudices, and drop the US demand that Iran suspend its controversial uranium enrichment activities before moving to direct negotiations. Should Iran turn down a generous overture, he would “ratchet up the pressure, with stronger unilateral sanctions; stronger multilateral sanctions in the Security Council, and sustained action outside the UN to isolate the Iranian regime”.
The Iran legacy Obama will pick up from his predecessor is full of missed opportunities and distrust. The Bush administration struggled with defining a successful Iran policy for almost eight years, and it is only in its waning days that a coherent framework emerged. It started well, when Iran proved a constructive player in removing the Taliban from Afghanistan and then stabilising the country. But the honeymoon ended when Israel intercepted a ship transporting weaponry from Iran to Gaza, landing Iran a place in the ill-advised Axis of Evil.
Then, as the US geared to invade Iraq, information surfaced that Iran was speeding ahead with its nuclear programme. The speed of the US success in removing Saddam stunned Tehran, which made a half-hearted overture to an uninterested Washington. Since then, the Iraq quagmire, the strengthening of Iranian proxies in the Levant and, more importantly, high oil prices, have convinced Iran not to freeze its nuclear programme.
It took time for the Bush administration to recognise its failure and adjust its policy accordingly. What has emerged in recent years is an approach that Obama will build on: the political containment of Iran through multilateral mechanisms, greater political and military coordination with Arab allies, and limited engagement with Tehran through multilateral channels.
Indeed, the Bush administration broke several taboos, something that will greatly help Obama. First, it recognised Iran’s right to a nuclear energy programme. Second, it acknowledged Iranian influence in Iraq and has engaged in direct negotiations on this topic. And third, it allowed a senior US official to sit opposite his Iranian counterpart to discuss Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
The next step for Obama is to decide how and at what level he will engage Tehran. He has three broad options. The first is gradual engagement limited to issues of common interests (Iraq and Afghanistan), later broadening to more contentious issues (the nuclear programme and Arab-Israel conflict). The second is head-on engagement addressing the nuclear issue. The third is a “grand bargain” that offers Iran the best possible deal in exchange for immediate reciprocation on the nuclear and regional issues.
All three strategies have serious limitations: the first delays any real progress on the most urgent issues; the second, by making the nuclear programme the centre of concern, could lead Iran to ask for an unbearable price; and the third assumes that a consensus inside the fractious Iranian political system can be reached.
Whatever the chosen course, negotiations will be arduous and frustrating. Iranian leaders seem unsure about how to deal with an American president with broad international appeal. As the Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour notes, Obama undermines the Iranian portrayal of the US as predatory, racist and expansionist.
The quandary Obama poses to Tehran may expose its internal contradictions and force it to decide between eternal but self-defeating opposition to the US, and a pragmatic but perhaps fatal re-orientation. There is a greater danger though. If Obama puts presidential prestige on the line and is rebuffed, frustration and the charge of naivete may turn him into the hawk he is not. Dialogue is always welcome, but one has to stay sober: negotiations, if unsuccessful, can worsen a situation. Obama has an opportunity to improve Middle Eastern stability, and yet so much does not rest on his shoulders.