Iran extends an early friendly hand
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
In a gesture of goodwill toward the next United States administration, Iranian
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has sent a letter to president-elect Barack Obama,
congratulating his victory, praising the American people and raising the
expectation of significant change in the US's foreign policy.
"I would like to offer my congratulations on your election by the majority of
the American electorate ... The people across the world expect that policies
and practices based on justice and respect for the rights of peoples and
nations, coupled with friendship and non-interference in the affairs of others
replace policies founded on war, occupation, coercion, deception, intimidation
of nations, discriminatory bilateral and global relations; policies and
practices that have enraged all nations and
many governments against the US administration and tainted the image of
American people," Ahmadinejad's letter to Obama reads in part.
Prior to Ahmadinejad, both Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and a couple of
aids to Ahmadinejad had expressed similar sentiments in the immediate aftermath
of Obama's historic victory on November 4. Ahmadinejad's decision to send a
more elaborate congratulatory letter reflects Iran's feeling that Obama is one
US president they can sit down with and discuss outstanding issues that have
caused a diplomatic estrangement for the past 28 years. Thus, the letter
represents a small Iranian olive branch toward the US that will be taken into
consideration by Obama and his foreign policy advisors, given Obama's campaign
pledges to "toughen" Iran sanctions and to prevent a "nuclear-armed Iran".
From Tehran's vantage point, the Obama administration would make a grave error
if it ignored Iran's legitimate right to sensitive nuclear technology, as well
as Iran's steady cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency
(IAEA), and rushes toward more bilateral and multilateral sanctions against
Iran. Already, Obama is under considerable heat in the US to prioritize Iran's
nuclear threat and not to relegate it to the background, some even going as far
as urging him to make it his number one foreign policy priority and to hammer
the issue in his much-anticipated inaugural speech come next January.
The reason there is such a concerted effort in the US to box the coming Obama
administration into a set Iran policy that would subject Iran to intensifying
pressures is precisely because of Obama's past statements with respect to his
willingness to meet Iranian leaders. (He did amend this position somewhat in
light of the tremendous heat he received from his Republican opponent, Senator
John McCain.) The issue now is whether as president Obama will retrieve his
initial intuition, which is the most prudent course of action.
As a clue to the complexity of Obama's agenda for introducing meaningful and
not simply cosmetic changes in the US's domestic and foreign policies, any new
US policy toward Iran must come in tandem with brand new adjustments in the US
towards Iraq, Afghanistan and the whole Middle East, otherwise it risks being
capsized by the side-effects of these related policies.
Thus, a noticeable improvement in US-Iran relations can come about indirectly
via both Iraq and Afghanistan, that is, places where Tehran and Washington
share a great deal of common interests. In both areas, the US definitely needs
a much greater policy coordination with Tehran, which has a vested interest in
the stability of its fragile neighbors. Once in office, Obama should adopt more
fully, and organically, the key policy recommendations of the bi-partisan Iraq
Study Group , that drew attention to the linkages between Middle East peace
and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and urged the US's engagement of Iraq's
Once in the Oval Office, Obama should give the green light for a new round of
US-Iran dialogue on Iraq's security, as well as to explore new areas of
cooperation with Iran on such matters as the burgeoning, and dangerous, drug
traffic stemming from Afghanistan. Also, he should explore concrete
confidence-building steps with Iran in the Persian Gulf region, including an
With respect to the nuclear standoff, Iran favors a systematic effort, whereby
"expert committees" on nuclear and non-nuclear issues would be set up to come
up with mutually acceptable policy recommendations. Certainly, Iran has not
closed the door on a "freeze-for-freeze" option whereby for several weeks Iran
would suspend its controversial uranium-enrichment program to give diplomacy
However, any rash move by the Obama administration, likely to be under the gun
of pro-Israel pressure groups to act quickly and decisively with regards to
Iran's perceived nuclear threat, will likely nip in the bud the present mood of
reciprocity clearly generated in Iran as a result of Obama's victory.
Alternatively, should Obama successfully withstand such heat and, instead,
prioritize the stalemated Middle East peace process, this would be widely
interpreted in Iran, and indeed the whole Muslim world, as a sign of his
independence and ability to steer US policy in a new direction. The symbolic
demonstration effect of even a declaratory statement in favor of Palestinian
rights to statehood could go a long way in assuring the Iranians and others
that the next US administration will introduce more than cosmetic changes or
minor adjustments, but rather seek a significant re-orientation.
Adjustment or re-orientation? This is the million-dollar question and, as
reflected in Ahmadinejad's letter, the expectations for Obama to deliver on the
foreign policy front are high.
As a rule, however, the US is averse to any radical transformation,
particularly in the foreign policy realm, which means that, realistically, one
should not expect an Obama revolution in US foreign policy, but rather a
careful and calibrated set of incremental changes aimed at making timely
In that event, the question then becomes whether or not the specific
adjustments in the US's Iran policy will be perceived as deep and meaningful
enough to move Iran's rulers away from their decades-long aversion to restoring
normal relations with a country still regarded as the "Great Satan".
1. The Iraq Study group, also known as the Baker-Hamilton Commission, was a
10-person bipartisan panel appointed on March 15, 2006, by the United States
Congress, that was charged with assessing the situation in Iraq and the US-led
Iraq War and making policy recommendations.
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.
His latest book,
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.