US Foreign Policy
Commentary

America is talking, but is anyone in Iran listening?

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It did not take long after President Barack Obama made an overture to Iran in his Nowrooz message for some commentators to criticise both the timidity of the gesture and continuing US hubris. The noted Jordanian-Palestinian writer Rami Khouri, for example, welcomed the shift but nevertheless detected “a lingering streak of arrogance” in a president still dictating the conditions for Iran’s reintegration in the world community.

@body arnhem:Yet what Mr Obama did is unprecedented and carefully calibrated. His choice of words and the general tone of his address after 30 years of estrangement showed that he and his senior team understand the importance of respect and empathy. This was not lost on the many Iranians who don’t fall easily for the simplistic accusation of imperialism levelled at the US when they have to contend with much more serious problems at home, mostly of their own government’s doing.

And for the first time in three decades Mr Obama’s message prompted a direct and public communication from the Iranian leader, even if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s response was predictable – lambasting the rhetoric of detente while complaining that nothing had changed in practice. In fact, if Mr Khamenei’s reaction proved anything it is that neither Iranian rhetoric nor practice will change soon, if ever.

Iranian enmity towards the US is often gratuitous, if understandable. Of course the CIA was disgracefully involved in the overthrow of the democratic Mossadegh government in 1953, but a powerful alliance of Iranian figures including the Shah, the military, numerous politicians and Ayatollah Kashani, a spiritual mentor of Ayatollah Khomeini, was as much to blame – and the US made amends for its blatant meddling a few years ago. And if Iranians can’t forgive the US for 1953, why can’t critics of the US accept lingering American resentment for the takeover of its embassy in Tehran in 1979? This is the charged symbolic subtext of any US-Iran rapprochement, and to Mr Obama’s credit he understands that clearing the air will be as important as hammering out the issues.

But beyond reassuring words to the effect that regime change is not on the table (“My administration is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us,” Mr Obama said in a welcome break from Bush rhetoric), the Nowrooz message was not a policy statement. That will have to wait for the Iran policy review to be unveiled soon in Washington. It is there in the corridors of power that objectives and strategies are debated, and where egos and approaches clash.

Two philosophies and two camps are emerging: those who want to build confidence on issues of shared concern and lock Tehran into a virtuous dialogue before moving on to serious diplomacy on the nuclear challenge, and those who argue that the nuclear clock is ticking so fast that immediate outreach to Tehran – with sweeter carrots and bigger sticks – is essential. The signs are that Mr Obama’s policy will borrow from each.

First came the leaked quid pro quo that he offered to Moscow: in exchange for precious Russian help in pressuring Iran, the US would reverse its decision to deploy the missile defence system in Eastern Europe that the Kremlin vehemently opposes. Great-power diplomacy will be necessary if Iran is to be offered a package it cannot turn down, but distrust between the US and Russia has long stood in its way, and Europe alone cannot provide the incentives Iran seeks, from security arrangements to a regional role.

Then came subtle hints that US and Iranian interests in Afghanistan converge substantially enough for cooperation there. The presence of Iran at the meeting yesterday in The Hague, and the appointment of Chris Hill as US ambassador to Iraq, suggest that the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, sees Iran as part of his extended remit – something that already makes other officials in Washington cringe. But the risks of a strategy that over-relies on confidence-building are serious: it delays addressing what many consider the real problem, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and could create undue comfort if there is a lull on Iraq and Afghanistan but no progress on other fronts.

Last came the leaked comments by Hillary Clinton that she doubted if Iran would respond positively to a US overture, suggesting that any such move would be no more than an attempt to mobilise support for greater pressure on Iran in a next round of coercion. This is where the role of Dennis Ross, the Obama administration’s point person on Iran, will be key. Mr Ross, an experienced if often criticised negotiator, comes to the job with much baggage, including the perception that he is somehow Israel’s man at the State Department. He is suspected by some of setting up the negotiations for failure because he once wrote that Iran was set on its nuclear course, so the US should engage Iran only after lining up support for greater pressure, which would undermine the goodwill that Mr Obama is trying to cultivate with the Iranian regime and people.

The range of sanctions that the US can apply on Iran both unilaterally and through the UN is not yet exhausted. Bans on gasoline, travel and trade could certainly inflict more pain, but 30 years of isolation have made Iran resilient and, as Ayatollah Khamenei made abundantly clear in his reply to Mr Obama, unbending.

The US strategy may be more nuanced than this reading. Mr Ross, who will undertake a tour of the Middle East soon to brief US allies on the findings of the review, may be playing the bad cop in a complex diplomatic dance, reassuring Israel and Arab countries that America has not gone soft on Iran.

Ultimately, whatever the shortcomings on the American side, it is in Washington rather than in Tehran that goodwill, momentum and policy innovation reside. This is surely no reason for satisfaction: every time one side has been ready to talk in the past, the other was not. If anything, the failure of Mr Obama’s overture will create more bad blood between the two countries, to everyone’s detriment. Is Tehran listening?

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