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
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
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
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
Iran's Nuclear Program: Debating Facts Versus Fiction. For his
Wikipedia entry, click here.