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Obama and Iran: A Victory for an Enlightened Foreign Policy?

Article by Mariam Ghorbannejad

December 3, 2008

A twist of fate just six weeks or so before had swung the electorate in Obama’s favour. His popularity soared as the American economy worsened. Perhaps if the economy had not taken centre stage, attention would have shifted to healthcare, education and foreign policy where the margin separating Obama from McCain would have been much smaller. George W. Bush had made a point of his role as commander-in-chief and he may have been passing the baton onto John McCain had events panned out differently. But that is what a matter of weeks can do in politics.

It may not have been Barack Obama’s foreign policy that got him elected by the US electorate. But in the international arena, it was his stance on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and openness to dialogue with Iran without pre-conditions that appealed to world leaders.

In particular, the letter of congratulations sent by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of the Islamic Republic of Iran to Obama seemed to garner much media attention. According to the Iranian President’s spokesperson, Gholam-Hussein Elham who was quoted by the Tehran Times, a similar letter of congratulations had been sent to Bush back in 2006, proposing a return to religious principles as a means of restoring confidence.

But this time, the act of sending a congratulatory message was seized upon as representing a fundamental shift in foreign policy direction. It was touted as having the potential to resurrect some kind of diplomacy between Iran and America that had been abruptly halted in 1979 after the US hostage crisis.

Was it overly-optimistic to presume that the United States would reach out to Iran? After all, it was Republican President George W. Bush who had named the Islamic Republic part of the ‘axis of evil’ alongside Iraq and North Korea in February 2002.

Given one of the key themes of Barack Obama’s foreign policy is to start a withdrawal of combat troops from neighbouring Iraq, trying to engage in ‘aggressive personal diplomacy’ with Iran and other regional powers looks to be a sensible move. In order to ensure Iraqi stability, he has pledged to develop a new relationship with Iran.

In exchange for cooperation on terrorism and nuclear issues and an end to Iran’s involvement in Iraq, the American president-elect has said that he would meet the country’s leaders (at a time and place of his choosing) and offer them economic inducements.

Should the Iranian government refuse to collaborate, stronger unilateral sanctions will be applied, alongside multilateral sanctions at the Security Council and ‘sustained action outside the UN to isolate the Iranian regime’ will be taken.

Although the Islamic Republic of Iran has had sound economic growth hovering between about four and five percent since 2004, high consumer inflation and unemployment coupled with a forecast decline in oil revenues* suggest that economic inducements could prove tempting.

The incoming American president’s carrot of membership of the World Trade Organisation and economic investment may encourage some conservatives in the Iranian government to soften their stance to US diplomatic engagement.

Both Barack Obama and vice-president-elect Joe Biden oppose the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, passed by Congress, which says that the US should use its military presence in Iraq to counter the threat from Iran. Obama made his opposition to the Iraq war clear from the outset and he believes that it would be reckless to extend it into Iran. As such, he has introduced a resolution in the Senate declaring that no act of Congress gives the Bush administration authority to attack Iran.

Obama has even gone so far as to say that he may not seek ‘regime change’ in the Islamic Republic. This could possibly allay fears in Iran that the West is only willing to engage with an Iranian government they do not view as hostile.

Memories of the coup d’etat that deposed Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in the early 1950s, an operation funded by the Americans and the British, are still fresh in the minds of many Iranians.

However, Obama’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, called talks with Iran, North Korea and Syria with few pre-conditions a propaganda victory for America’s international foes.

Her recent acceptance of the post of US Secretary of State could therefore prove significant in the future course of American foreign policy. Initial expressions of delight from Iranian quarters at a new era of Iranian-American relations may have been a little premature.

* Figures obtained from the Economist Intelligence Unit

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