February 1, 2009

Obama and Iran - naïveté and the real world

President Barack ObamaSoon after becoming President, Barack Obama reiterated his campaign pledge to enter into negotiations with Iran to try to break the impasse over Iran's nuclear program. During the campaign, he indicated that he would talk with the Iranians without preconditions.

As with many of his initial positions - "don't ask, don't tell" and Guantanamo come to mind - reality has set in and there have been changes. Now the President is ready to begin diplomatic overtures to the Islamic Republic of Iran if Tehran is willing to "unclench its fist."

Words are taken very seriously in this part of the world, especially in Iran. Almost immediately following his remarks during an interview on the Arabic-language network al-'Arabiyah, the President received the predictable responses from the Iranians. It was as if the talking points were coordinated in Tehran - they probably were.

- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad criticized the President's remarks as insufficient, demanding not only that the United States apologize for "crimes against Iran" over the last 60 years, but that Mr. Obama institute "deep and fundamental" changes in U.S. policy in the region. Of course, Ahmadinejad may have missed the point that Obama's willingness to talk to the Iranians is a rather significant change.

- In the spirit of piling on, Iran's vice president in charge of executive affairs, Ali Saidloo, reiterated Ahmadinejad's demand for an apology - evidently that is the new threshold for talks with the Iranians.

- This was followed by Iranian foreign minister, Manoucher Mottaki, who said that Obama's words are not enough, that there needed to be a practical demonstration of a change in American policies before the Islamic Republic will talk to the United States. He went further to warn the President that Iran's uranium enrichment program was not a topic for compromise.

- The official spokesman for the Iranian government, Gholam Hossein Elham, characterized Obama's willingness to talk to Iran as proof that American policy in the region had failed. He went on to claim that the new President realizes that he needs help from Iran to achieve American goals in the region.

- Former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani criticized Obama for continuing the Bush administration's policy of not specifically taking the military option off the table over Iran's refusal to halt its uranium nuclear enrichment program.

As I said, the responses were predictable. If you want to engage the Iranians in dialogue, it is not helpful to make accusations during an interview on a major Middle Eastern television network. The Iranians understand back-channel communications. The Obama administration should have used such channels to make the President's positions known to the Iranians. Once there was an agreement on a framework for dialogue, an announcement would be appropriate.

All President Obama can do now is make concessions, the exact wrong thing to do. While I am sure he views his actions as bold and strong, in the region this makes him look weak. In the Middle East, perception is reality.

I would advise the President to hire a good Middle East specialist who understands the region, as it is obvious he does not.