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How to cope with Obama.

The Islamic Republic is uncertain how to respond to President Obama and appears to be positioning itself so it can jump in either direction--leaping into bilateral talks with the new administration, or walking away from them.

Last week, President Ahmadi-nejad gave a laundry list of pre-conditions Obama might have to fulfill before Iran would join in talks.

But Ahmadi-nejad avoided saying the Americans would first have to check everything off the list. It was left vague so that Iran could refer to the checklist if it wished to stall talks or just ignore the list if Iran decided it wished to talk.

It isn't known when Obama will make his first overture to the Islamic Republic. Administration officials last week would say only that a review of Iran policy is underway. There is no deadline for its completion.

(The Bush Administration launched a similar review eight years ago, when it was new. Due to considerable squabbling and disagreement, the review was never completed.)



It is widely expected, however, that the Obama people will not wish to get tangled in the Iranian presidential elections, scheduled for June 12, and may not, therefore, make an overt gesture until the elections are completed.

That did not stop a rash of news stories last week--all of them false--about clandestine meetings and approaches by Obama to Iran.

The biggest story appeared in The Guardian of London, which reported breathlessly that the new Administration had directed the drafting of a personal letter from Obama to President Ahmadi-nejad. This got global attention--until both the White House and State Department said the story was nonsense.

Other stories spoke of "back channel" meetings between Obama people and Iranian officials. The most attention focused on an alleged meeting between William Perry, who was defense secretary under Bill Clinton, and unnamed Iranian officials. It turned out this was no intimate hotel room gathering. Rather Perry and some Iranians and many dozens of other people all attended a Pugwash Conference on national security issues. Perry, however, attended on his own and did not represent the Obama Administration in any way.

The director of the Pugwash Conference tried garnering more attention for the annual conference by talking up the presence of Perry and the Iranians. But no one seems to know if Perry and the Iranians even saw each other, let alone talked.

More importantly, no one from the Obama transition team talked to the Iranians. People who joined the transition team after the election had to agree not to make such contacts-whether they dealt with Iran or other topics. They even had to agree not to make any public speeches while on the transition team.

Mike Hammer, the new Obama spokesman for the National Security Council, said, "The president made it very clear to the Transition Team that there would be no contacts with foreign government officials during the transition." That referred to all foreign governments, not just Iran.

Once the Obama Administration has worked out the meat of its Iran policy, there may well be some quiet contacts, most likely through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, the official link between Tehran and Washington, or through Iran's ambassador to the United Nations in New York, another link that has been used over the years.

That contact would likely be geared to determining how the idea of talks should be floated so as not to offend anyone. Should Obama make a public speech outlining his approach? Or should he send a private letter to which Iran could then respond? Or would it be better if Iran initiated the contact?

The focus in the media is on the drama of the start of talks. But that is a minor issue to officials. For them, the point is the substance of the talks. What will the United States propose? In what order? What items, if any, will be linked? How should the United States react to issues likely to be raised by Iran?

In the West, the conventional wisdom holds that the absence of Iranian-American talks in recent years is the result of how obstinate the Bush Administration was. But the Clinton Administration offered talks in the 1990s and was ignored by the Islamic Republic. And the Bush Administration entered talks on one topic, Iraq, with Tehran only to see Iran decline to agree to any more meetings after three were held.

The issue of talks with the United States is very sensitive in Tehran--far more sensitive there than it is in Washington. Many in the leadership oppose talks of any kind. Others consider talks absolutely essential to reach some kind of agreement with the United States limiting, if not eliminating, political frictions.

The ultimate decision, as always, will be made by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenehi. Khamenehi follows the path of his predecessor, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and seeks to find a consensus position. If that is not possible, he seeks balance by giving the decision on one issue to the radicals and the decision on another issue to the moderates. Only rarely does the Leader issue edicts. The last known edict was three years ago when Khamenehi very publicly and harshly overruled Ahmadinejad by decreeing that women would not be allowed to attend soccer matches in Iran.

Khamenehi is probably allowing the internal debate over American policy to proceed to air out all the issues and allow everyone to have his say for now. What cannot be known is whether Khamenehi has a preferred position himself and will try to guide the internal debate by having his loyalists stake out a position and argue extensively over the next few months for that preferred position.

Ali Ansari, who teaches at St. Andrews University in Scotland, told Reuters, "The Iranian political elite aren't quite sure what to do about the United States. [They] do think about relations in the long term, but weren't expecting to have to make a decision now."

Hamid-Reza Jalaipur, a University of Tehran professor, said, "In my opinion, there are two branches among officials"--pragmatists seeking talks and hardliners opposed to them--and "the president is on the border between these two groups."

More importantly, Khamenehi appears to be a fencesitter, too. He has approved talks--for example, two years ago in Baghdad and in 2002 dealing with Afghanistan. But he also ignored the Clinton Administration initiative and brought the Baghdad talks to a halt. Many analysts believe Khamenehi thinks talks are necessary in the long run for the good of Iranian foreign policy, but often are bad for him in the short run because they give him grief from the hardliners.

One analyst said, "A lot of this may just be timing--timing that people in the West can't possibly understand. Look, if the hardliners have just lost some big issue, there's no way Khamenehi can turn around and authorize talks with America. He can't kick the ultra-right in the pants twice in a row."

Lest some think the hardliners have gone to ground, Ayatollah Ali Jannati, the senior member of the Council of Guardians and perhaps the hardest hardliner in the establishment, warned against any rapprochement with the Americans and denounced proponents of the idea as "troublemakers" from "hated groups."

One Western diplomat in Tehran summed the issue up this way: "With Iranians, there are always two sets of negotiations--the one you have with them, and the one they have among themselves."

Ahmadi-nejad, perhaps operating at Khamenehi's direction, is keeping all options open. He made a point of sending Obama a congratulatory letter after the election--and took a lot of criticism from the hardliners for sending it. (Obama has not answered the letter and would probably have preferred not to have received it. Letters that are political negatives for both the sender and the recipient are not a good idea. Chalk up one error of political judgment to Tehran.)

But Ahmadi-nejad last week laid out what could be a set of conditions the United States would first have to meet before talks could be started. The Ahmadi-nejad conditions, however, could guarantee there would be no talks. Ahmadinejad did not say flatly that the items he listed in a speech in Kermanshah were conditions; he suggested they could be conditions. That gave the government maximum flexibility. The conditions included:

* Obama must apologize for past American crimes against the Islamic Republic and "compensate" for those crimes. He mentioned specific crimes such as support for the overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953; egging on Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in the 1980s; and the shooting down of an Iran Air Airbus in 1989, killing all 290 aboard.

* Obama must withdraw U.S. troops from every foreign posting--not just Iraq and Afghanistan--to prove his campaign advocacy of change.

* Obama must "stop supporting the Zionists."

* Obama must stop "interfering in other people's affairs."

But Ahmadi-nejad also had some milder rhetoric: "We will wait patiently, listen to their words carefully, scrutinize their actions under a magnifier and, if change happens truly and fundamentally, we will welcome that." In other words, the president was not slamming shut any doors.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, speaking in Switzerland last week to an international audience, was very positive toward Obama, although treating him a little haughtily like he was the new and untutored boy on the block. Mottaki said Tehran was ready to work with Obama to establish better relations. "I believe the president of the United States needs more time to express his ideals and objectives. I believe the United States should see why it needs to change.... President Obama has courage and he must tell us which aspects of the Bush Administration he is against."

Government spokesman Gholam-Hossain Elham, asked about the possibility of talks with Washington, avoided answering the question and concentrated on painting an American proposal for talks as evidence of the second-rate status of the United States. He said, "The request [for talks] shows the passivity of Western ideology."

He said the West had turned passive in the face of the demands of the rest of the world. He said, "America, as the archetype of the hegemonic system and of materialistic thought, which is in fact the manifestation of Western liberal democracy, is reaching a dead-end."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi threw Obama's rhetoric back at him. In an interview last week, Obama said he would extend a hand to Iran if it would "unclench its fist." Qashqavi shot back that the only clenched fist was that of America's "domination-seeking government."
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Author:Nelson, Warren L.
Publication:Iran Times International (Washington, DC)
Geographic Code:7IRAN
Date:Feb 6, 2009
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