Iran looks through Obama's poker face
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
It has been a stellar week for United States President Barack Obama's foreign
policy, and the only question is whether success in one area complements - or
neutralizes - success on other issues.
The question is relevant in light of Obama's productive meetings with the
leaders of China and Russia at the Group of 20 summit in London on Wednesday,
enlisting their cooperation on, among other things, Iran's nuclear issue. The
meetings came just a day after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed
a similar note of success regarding Iran's cooperation on Afghanistan, after US
and Iranian officials met at United Nations-backed conference on Afghanistan at
Despite the positive signs, a situation may be emerging in which
the Obama administration wants to have its cake and eat it. That is, gang up on
Iran at the United Nations Security Council, while conveniently enlisting
Iran's cooperation in resolving thorny and increasingly dangerous regional
But perhaps there is no fundamental contradiction between the two moves.
Obama's opening toward Iran may be a temporary tactic, rather than part of any
far-reaching strategic vision. This could explain why the US has not offered a
"strategic dialogue" to Iran, as it has with China. Obama's meeting with
Chinese leader Hu Jintao culminated in the two leaders calling for "a US-China
strategic and economic dialogue".
Similarly, the joint statement by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
called for a fresh start in relations and a commitment to work together to
tackle a variety of issues. The two leaders called on Iran "to stop its
enrichment of uranium and to allow more inspections of its facilities".
From Tehran's vantage point, Obama's subtle foreign policy plays are revealing
themselves as possibly out of synch. In response, Tehran has taken a step back
from the goodwill it demonstrated at The Hague conference. Government officials
have discounted Clinton's upbeat description of a brief exchange between US and
Iranian diplomats and denied her claim that those diplomats had promised to
keep in touch.
If Iran suspects a re-enactment of the George W Bush administration's tactical
overture toward Iran in 2000-2001 over the Taliban, then there may be a
premature collapse of the so-called "new season of diplomacy" between Tehran
This is all the more reason for the White House to reassure Tehran that it is
not using "smart power" diplomacy to lower Iran's guard, while at the same time
building up a formidable international coalition against it on the nuclear
front. Some have seen such a scenario as a case where success in one realm
breeds potential failure in another.
According to analysts, the Obama administration can avoid this predicament by
offering Iran the option of a comprehensive and strategic dialogue, like the
meetings planned with China and Russia. If not, Iran may revert to an
increasingly obstructionist role in the region. Such a move would derail US
policy and interests - especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Leading Washington officials, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have
publicly voiced their preferences for tougher sanctions on Iran. Gates, a Bush
left-over who managed to keep his job in part by sounding somewhat
non-confrontational toward Iran, appears to have changed his stance under the
new administration. Many see this as a bad omen.
Iran is already suffering a great deal as a result of US and UN sanctions.
Should they be toughened any further, an inordinate amount of political anger
will be directed at the US from both politicians in Tehran and average
Iranians. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband has disapproved of new
sanctions on Iran, saying that now is not the time for them.
The US and other Western powers may be better served by focusing on
transparency and stringent inspections of Iran's facilities. This option would
be strengthened if cooperation with Iran on Afghanistan yields tangible
Should Iran start cooperating on Afghanistan, it will be even harder for the
West to justify sanctions. Richard Holbrooke, the US's point man on Afghanistan
and Pakistan, has said help from Iran is absolutely essential for Afghanistan's
The greatest threat to a potential agreement on Afghanistan may be Western
worries about Iran's "nuclear intentions". If this paranoia deepens, it could
undermine efforts to establish a durable cooperation with Iran on Afghanistan,
where a severe crisis is taking shape.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New
Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For his Wikipedia entry,
click here. His
Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing
, October 23, 2008) is now available.