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    Middle East
     Aug 28, 2008
The Biden factor in US-Iran relations
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi

Senator Barack Obama's choice of Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate for the Democratic ticket for the US presidency is a good omen for troubled US-Iran relations and will likely translate into positive developments on that front in the event Obama moves into the White House.

Biden, who has chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has been a strong advocate of engagement with Iran and a vocal opponent of any military action against Iran as a result of the nuclear standoff. He has participated in a number of forums sponsored by Iranian expatriates in the US, and has denounced some anti-Iran measures, such as the US's labeling of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist outfit.

With Iran looming as one of the major foreign policy issues in the

 

presidential elections, Biden brings a measure of legitimacy to Obama's call for direct dialogue with Tehran, a position soundly rejected by his Republican rival, Senator John McCain.

The trouble with McCain's position on Iran, however, is that it does not sit well even with the Iran policy of the George W Bush administration, in light of the recent meeting of Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, with US Under Secretary of State, William Burns, in Geneva. This meeting marked a clear turnaround from the previous US policy of setting stringent preconditions, such as the suspension of Iran's uranium-enrichment program, for any direct contact.

At the same time, the downside of having a clearer position on Iran is that it is not particularly favored by the strong pro-Israel lobby in Washington that tilts in favor of McCain. It is therefore possible that Biden's selection may cost Obama a share of the Jewish vote, particularly if between now and November hostilities between the US and Iran escalate. In the absence of any breakthrough in the Iran nuclear stalemate and the ongoing tensions in Iraq, that is not hard to imagine.

In turn, the chances are that, faced with the prospect of a Jewish backlash, the Obama-Biden ticket may harden its stance towards Iran, just as Obama did during his recent trip to Israel, when he stated categorically that he was in favor of keeping all options open (such as an attack on Iran) and that he would not tolerate an Iranian nuclear weapon.

The danger is that Biden might now sing the same tune and escalate his rhetoric against Iran, rather than remain consistent with his earlier positions that prioritized diplomacy almost to the exclusion of hard power.

This is an important issue that could be addressed in the near future, in light of a key article in the Washington Post by Michael Rubin, a staunch pro-Israel pundit at the American Enterprise Institute, indirectly criticizing Biden for his soft Iran positions, as well as his connections to Iran lobbyists.

It is almost a sure bet that Biden and Obama will show sensitivity to such subtle attacks on them and will try damage control by using more strident rhetoric against Iran. Equally possible is that Biden will resist pressure from Obama and his team and refrain from sounding bellicose against Iran, in which case we must anticipate a bifurcated Obama administration, should the Democrats win the presidential contest, with vice president Biden leaning more in the direction of soft power diplomacy toward Iran than the new president in the Oval Office.

However, should Iran respond well to the Democratic victory through a more flexible nuclear posture that would be amenable to reaching a compromise, then the Biden factor will definitely weigh in positively, both in the area of confidence-building as well as substantive progress in the divisive issues that remain between the US and Iran.

From Tehran's point of view, the replacement of hawkish Vice President Dick Cheney with the dovish Biden would be welcome news reflecting the beginning of an overdue adjustment of US foreign policy toward Iran.

Already, in his television interview with Charlie Rose of Public Broadcast Service in the US last week, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad stated Iran's willingness to engage with the US should the US government correct its coercive approach toward Tehran. In this interview, Ahmadinejad called on the US and other governments that are part of the "Iran Six" (consisting of the UN Security Council's permanent five - the US, France, China, Britain and Russia - plus Germany) to consider seriously Iran's recent package of proposals regarding cooperation on regional and global issues.

To date, the "Iran Six" have not officially responded to Iran's package and instead have put their emphasis on the need for Iran to respond to their recent package of incentives, aimed at persuading Iran to suspend its nuclear fuel cycle.

Ahmadinejad plans another US trip to attend the annual United Nations gathering in September, close to the November presidential elections in the US. This visit could be of high value for both McCain and Obama who, in their own way, could benefit from the net impact of Ahmadinejad being in town.

But, if Ahmadinejad's conciliatory interview with Rose is any indication, Iran's fiery president will follow the same script once he steps foot in New York, in which case the Obama-Biden ticket will benefit from the impression of some melting ice in the glacier of hostilities between the US and Iran. It is all the more important then for Biden to stick to his guns and not overnight become yet another hawkish voice on Iran (as seen with Obama at his recent meeting with Jewish lobbyists in Washington).

Through his Iranian connections, Biden can certainly reach out to Iran ahead of the elections and perhaps solicit a more favorable reaction from Tehran on various policy issues than seen from Tehran so far. All this depends on the nature of the heat put on Biden and Obama by the Jewish and pro-Israel groups, who dread the thought of a thaw in Iran-US relations as long as Iran has not halted its controversial nuclear program.

As a seasoned politician and foreign policy expert, who is also on record for his more even-handed US policy in the Middle East, Biden is capable of steering Obama in the direction of a new realism in US foreign policy that recognizes the importance of Iran as a regional power and which has national security worries and concerns, such as terrorism, drug trafficking and conflict-spillover.
Obama has shown only a superficial understanding of the Middle East in general and Iran in particular and this is a weakness that can be remedied by giving Biden considerable room to maneuver. Should the Obama team put a tight leash on Biden when it comes to Iran, it would mean sacrificing the potential for a breakthrough with Iran that Biden brings to the ticket. This is not to underestimate the difficulties in coordinating a unified and homogenous Iran policy between Obama and Biden.

Simply put, the Democratic ticket has no better chance to provide a serious change in US foreign policy than by charting a less-bellicose and more-conciliatory approach toward Iran. This is likely to be reciprocated by Tehran's leaders, including Ahmadinejad, who is still waiting for a response to his letters - one to Bush and the other to the American people.

Ahmadinejad's missive to Bush is unlikely to draw a response, but the chances are good to excellent that such an overture toward the US's first African-American president will elicit a productive response.

Should McCain be the next president, we should expect nothing more than business as usual in the troubled waters of the US's ties with Iran.

Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) and co-author of "Negotiating Iran's Nuclear Populism", Brown Journal of World Affairs, Volume XII, Issue 2, Summer 2005, with Mustafa Kibaroglu. He also wrote "Keeping Iran's nuclear potential latent", Harvard International Review, and is author of Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. For his Wikipedia entry, click here.

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