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    Middle East
     Apr 3, 2009
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 The Hague.

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 issues.

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 and Washington.

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 results.

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 stability.

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 latest book, Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) is now available.

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